By Barry Reszel
If, as many might agree, good theatre is that which affects its audiences profoundly, then to proffer the moniker to Goodman Theatre’s We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time is a no-brainer.
British actor David Cale‘s return to his Goodman home (where he’s performed on and off for the past 30 years) to debut his exceptionally honest one-man musical memoir is more than emotional; it’s beyond passionate. It’s genuinely, heart-wrenchingly sad.
He probably doesn’t like that reflection.
Because the piece developed last year in Goodman’s New Stages Festival is designed not only to document and reflect on horrific elements of his childhood, but to strut out his definition of human wholeness on the other side of these events.
He’s quoted in the production’s Playbill responding to a friend who commented that his life in the theatre has led to this moment, “…there’s truth to that. But I think it was out of my reach a few years ago artistically. I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me, I didn’t want it to be indulgent or just slog through depressing stuff. It had to be, to some degree, about transcending your past, your background, your genetics.”
To that end, We’re Only Alive… succeeds, if for no other reason than the audience sees Cale channeling his father, mother and brother through his fraught-filled youth in the small town of Luton, north of London. To a greater extent, it succeeds because patrons see Cale himself, whole, empathically telling and singing his story in his American home, and they are compelled to listen.
Goodman’s producers made this request of reviewers: “In hopes of maintaining the full experience of We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time for future patrons, we respectfully request that those writing about the production refrain from including revealing aspects of the plot.” Fair enough.
The information embargo does not extend to the gifted performance of Matthew Dean Marsh’s piano and five terrific instrumentalists. They accompany Cale on his musical journey with songs he’s written and sings with an on-pitch, character-voice quality. Songs like “The Feral Child,” “Canada Geese,” “Are You My Boy?” mostly add to the overall melancholy.
Jennifer Tipton’s wonderful lighting on both the musicians and Kevin Depinet’s simple, elegant “exchanging mobiles” set design enhance the thought-provoking wistfulness precipitated by Cale’s words and music.
In sharing his life story, Cale opens his soul to Chicago audiences, trusting the theatre he calls home to showcase his horror and his healing. That puts a huge burden on patrons of this production; they are permitted to feel sorry for him, even if that’s not what Cale wants, but they must also recognize his triumphant redemption.
Goodman Theatre presents “You’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time” through October 21 in the Albert Theatre at 170 North Dearborn Street, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Liz Lauren.