Chula Vista, CA---Michael Brady’s 1984 romantic drama takes place at a time when men were just about on the brink of sharing their feelings out loud. Touchy/feeling kumbaya moments were few and far between, so when Paul (a very effective Justin Allen Slagle) and his psychologist wife Esther (Michelle Burkhart in a terrific OnStage debut) visit their grieving brother-in-law David (Stephen Schmitz) at his summer home on Nantucket Island over Labor Day weekend, sparks and hugs are on the menu.
David lost his wife Gillian in a freak boating accident over two years ago. It all happened on her birthday when she was 35. Now two years later, the family including their 15 year old daughter Rachel (Janelle Urie), her 16 year old friend Cindy (Allison Edmonds), who has a crush on David, and a possible future date for David, Kevin (Alyssa Anne Schechter) along with sister and brother-in-law are gathered at the ocean front cottage (Charles Peters and Chad Oakley) to either celebrate Gillian’s 37th or, if David had his way, hold a wake for her.
David still cannot come to grips with the fact that Gillian is gone so at night after everyone is tucked into bed, he carries on conversations and game playing with the ghost of Gillian (Denae Steele). In this way, he is able, in his mind, to still be with her. In everyone else’s mind, he’s never moved past her death on any road to recovery and to leading a productive life. That includes neglecting his teen-aged daughter and quitting his job as a high school teacher.
As plays go, “To Gillian…” is somewhat of a downer. As a spoiler you should know that David does come to his senses and is able to see the light of day. As good as this sounds it takes a full two hours of some pretty tough love, some hugs and plenty of give and take for everyone in the cast/family to get on board.
With a little help from flashbacks or mind game visits from Gillian, both she and David are able to press the forward button; or one step forward, two back. Denae Steele is most effective as Gillian as she makes her appearances most meaningful in a very short time.
Opening night of “Gillian” was a bit jerky and pokey with lots of dull spaces between those on stage and those exiting the stage. For some reason director Charles Peters seldom presented stage pictures with more than two characters carrying on a dialogue at the same time and when he did those not engaged in conversation did not look tuned in to what was going on.
The most interesting characters and ones that breathed life into this production were Justin Allen Slagle and Michelle Burkhart as brother-in-law and sister-in-law Paul and Esther with Paul having the plum and funny lines and Esther lending the emotional depth lacking in all the others. Frankly they gave the production the much-needed oomph it so dearly lacked when they are off somewhere getting groceries or such.
Stephen Schmitz’s David was like a push me/pull you not quite comfortable as the grieving father, especially when he is around his very smart daughter, yet very animated when talking about stars, planets and ocean creatures. Father and daughter could be strangers for all we know. Oddly, he seemed to pay more attention to Cindy (I found that a little unnerving because he should know better than to lead a 16 year old on) than to Rachel.
Schmitz’ voice needs more modulation and less thunder to come off as convincing. When he finally does come around to actually having a conversation with both Kevin and Rachel, he shows the confidence to come out of his shell and demonstrates a little emotion, a little gleam and animation in his face.
Alyssa Anne Schechter is fine as Kevin. Unfortunately her role is too underwritten and she has little to say or do throughout. Her understated presence might do well with a little more verve and vibrancy.
Both teenagers share the same ‘whatever’ attitude with Rachel having a bit more maturity even though she is a year younger. Cindy’s (Allison Edmonds) Lolita look did nothing to convince this reviewer. I found her character to be a thorn in everyone’s side and again, David’s reaction or uber interest in her, just did not jive with me.
Janelle Urie, a sophomore at San Diego State, is convincing as Rachel, David’s needy and needed daughter. She too shows maturity beyond her years. After two years of watching her father wallow around in his own sorrow she’s had it and threatens to move to the city to live with Paul and Esther where she will get some much needed nurturing.
In Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s “The Five Stages of Grief”, Denial is #1. David is still there but when we catch up with him, he shows signs of reaching step #3 or the Bargaining Stage. While none is cut and dry, let’s just agree that he has yet to reach #5, Acceptance.
By plays end, it is obvious that David will get there eventually.We hope it’s sooner rather than later for Rachel’s sake.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through April 13th
Organization: OnStage Playhouse
Production Type: Romantic Drama
Where: 291 3rd Avenue, Chula Vista 91910
Venue: OnStage Playhouse