Going to a Place Where You Already Are
by John Stoltenberg
Whatever your mental picture of heaven, the funny and beautifully moving production of Bekah Brunstetter’s Going to a Place Where You Already Are just opened at Theater Alliance may alter it. Alternately, if you’ve got no image of the hereafter whatsoever (because who knows if there even is one?), this play’s afterimage may leave you with a glimpse of what you’ve been dismissing.
As the audience files in to be seated around the stage space, a mighty pipe organ plays (the first of many wonderfully scene-setting soundscapes by Sound Designer Matthew M. Nielson). Two huge wood pews are wheeled in (the first of Scenic Designer Brian Gillick’s many wonderfully specific roll-on-and-off set pieces), and two older folks take a seat in one of them.
They are a married couple, Roberta and Joe, there to attend a funeral. As they chatter through the service not so sotto voce, we learn they both believe the idea of an afterlife to be bunk. Thus death and dying enter the show up top. But we also begin to see a marvelously lively and loving quality in the relationship between Roberta and Joe. As performed with great sensitivity by Annie Houston and Gregory Ford, they are characters we warm to instantly.
Meanwhile a younger male figure hovers solicitously and mysteriously on the sidelines wearing (in one of Costume Designer Kara Waala’s many nice touches) a sleek blue suit and white sneakers without socks. He hands Roberta and Joe a hymnal when it comes time for them to sing along with the churchful of mourners. Later we will learn he is an Angel (a winning and nimble Alan Naylor). For now, his inexplicable appearance is our entrée to the show’s delightful magical realism.
Cut to a scene somewhere else, the bedroom of a young woman named Ellie (an impressively expressive Tricia Homer). Under the covers with her is a sweet-natured young man named Jonas (a genuinely likable MacGregor Arney), whom she picked up the day before and spent the night with. He wants to stay the day; she liked their lovemaking too but lets him know it’s time for him to go. She tells him it’s because she has work to do. But when he gets out of bed, gets dressed, and gets into the wheelchair he uses, we get that Ellie’s reluctance may be about Jonas’s disability. Thus begins a remarkable maybe-not-or-maybe love story.
Ellie is Joe’s granddaughter and Roberta’s step-granddaughter, so when Roberta learns she has a terminal tumor, the two story lines intersect.
During a diagnostic medical procedure, Roberta has an experience of dying and going to heaven. (Nielsen and Lighting Designer Mary Keegan create the lovely otherworldly effect.) And that puts Roberta’s and Joe’s loving each other at odds: Roberta elects to decline the excruciating treatments that come next because she’s all ready to go back to that wondrous place. Joe, on the other hand, desperately needs her to continue treatment because he cannot bear the thought of losing her, and he doesn’t believe in that place anyway. Thus Roberta’s and Joe’s deep decades-long love undergoes a crisis of crossed faith.
Going to a Place Where You Already Are is an extraordinary evocation of love in life and loss in death. It is funny. It is sad. It is joyful. It is painful. Theater Alliance Producing Artistic Director Colin Hovde directs from a wellspring of honesty and empathy. This is a from-the-heart and -soul show that can truthfully be called heavenly. And at some point during it, anyone who has ever lost a loved one may find themselves (as I did) losing it.