A small life has deep repercussions in Steep’s moving Midwest premiere from Irish writer Ross Dungan.
Dungan’s 2012 piece suggests a sort of This Is Your Wonderful Life for recently deceased Eric Argyle, who wakes up two days after getting hit by a car in an afterlife limbo where he’s asked to view re-enactments of pivotal moments in his life, which Eric sees as pretty inconsequential on the whole. But we get a wider view than Eric does, incorporating additional story threads that are taking place back in the world of the living even as Eric endures his “sort of” death. Dungan sets up these story lines, involving both people Eric knew in his small-town life and total strangers, into a line of dominoes that culminate in a mostly satisfying cascade.
Jonathan Berry’s staging for Steep Theatre, the play’s Midwest premiere, sidesteps the pitfalls named by reviewers in New York and Los Angeles, who seemed to find Dungan’s work—with its precious setup and shared narration—cloying or twee. (That the L.A. production apparently used a puppet to portray a pair of young girl characters, here played alternately by kid actors Grier Burke and Kylie Sullivan, gives you an idea of where one could go with this material.)
But Berry’s immersive production, packed with the kind of incisive, gimlet-eyed acting one comes to expect from Steep, keeps this a serious (though often quite funny) endeavor. Pat Whalen, as the metaphysical re-enactor of Young Eric, Lucy Carapetyan as the object of his lifelong affection, and Peter Moore as Eric’s mentor and father figure are each very affecting.
One could question the casting choice of Jeff Duhigg as the deceased Eric—not because Duhigg doesn’t essay his duties well, but because he’s clearly much closer to Whalen’s years than to Eric’s clearly stated age of 58, which in a piece that hinges on the title character being split among younger and older actors left me waiting for some other shoe that never dropped.
Dungan, too, might have provided something more for us in the past scene that older Eric finds most difficult to watch—when his younger self rejected a chance at happiness out of some unknowable motivation: fear? loyalty to a friend? It’s frustrating that we’re left in the dark, but perhaps that speaks to the larger point: No matter how insignificant we may feel, our actions can reverberate long after we’re gone.
Steep Theatre. By Ross Dungan. Directed by Jonathan Berry. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1:45; no intermission.