by Shirley Lorraine
Romantic drama explores grief
The current production at the Elite Theatre in Oxnard’s Channel Islands is a study in how grief affects us each in different ways. To Gillian, on Her 37th Birthday, by Michael Brady explores ways in which a widower is coping (or not), to the frustration of his family and friends.
To Gillian is a timeless play. At some time, all of us will be faced with the loss of a loved one. Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross outlined the five stages of grief that everyone encounters – the multiple facets of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Not everyone experiences the stages in the same order. Some get stuck in one stage for a while before allowing themselves to move forward.
This appears to be what happened to David (Bill Walthall), who lost his beloved Gillian (Alyssa Carmen) in a boating mishap a few years before. He is unable to fully accept her death and spends much of his time having “conversations” with her. So much so, that he is oblivious to the needs of his teenaged daughter Rachel (Genesis Perez) and the teenaged infatuation of her friend Cindy (Sophia Fox). Gillian’s sister Esther (Jen Ridgway) and her husband Paul (Michael Adams) confront David, offering to have Rachel live with them until he faces reality. Paul and David have been friends for many years while Esther has been a thorn in David’s side.
Esther and Paul invite a young friend Kevin (Elisabeth Melcher) for a few days’ stay at David’s beach house in hopes he will see beyond his grief to a fresh relationship. Kevin was a student in one of David’s classes before the accident. Mutual attraction is acknowledged but David is fearful of letting go of Gillian’s memory.
As David copes with new feelings, he reaches out to Gillian’s spirit who encourages him to let her go. Tensions rise as the two teens feel unseen and unheard, the houseguest is put in an awkward situation and the in-laws put pressure on David to let go and move forward.
There are many moments of serenity, calm and reflection. There are also moments of anger, angst and confusion as each character copes with the reality of Gillian’s death and the need to continue living without her.
Bill Walthall, as the pivotal David, gives a solid performance laced with emotion. The ghost of Gillian as played by Alyssa Carmen provides a dose of practicality, sympathy and reality as she leads David toward the path of acceptance. Michael Adams as Paul injects playful humor into the situation, while Jen Ridgway as Esther counters with stern resolve.
This dramatic romantic effort is heartfelt throughout. Director Rolland Petrello has given relative newcomers an opportunity to take the stage next to seasoned actors, an ensemble that works well as a whole.
Certainly the theme and moments of reflection will strike different chords with audience members depending on their own circumstances in dealing with loss. The play reminds us to focus on the present and appreciate the people and life we are living rather than dwelling in our loss.
To Gillian on her 37th Birthday continues through September 15. Elite Theatre Playhouse, 2731 S. Victoria Ave, Oxnard. 805-483-5118 or www.theelite.org. $20 general admission, $17 seniors, students and military