by Jim Farrar
American College Theatre Festival 1987

David keeps a close eye on the sky. He lives off the coast of New England and runs along the beach. He tries to forget.

He is haunted, literally, by his dead wife Gillian, who has been killed in a boating accident. His grief has driven a wedge between him and his daughter. David is a phantom, a shell of a man who can no longer work and, it seems, communicate with the people who love him. A sizeable chunk of David’s soul lies in that grave with his wife and all that’s left of it is the part that can grieve, the part that mourns the loss of Gillian and yearns to return to a past that will never be anything more than a terrible memory.

“I want her back,” he says flatly. His daughter Rachel feels the same about him.

Enter Kevin, a woman whose parents wanted a boy so badly they gave her a man’s name. With the help of Gillian’s sister Esther and her husband Paul, Kevin coaxes David back to the land of the living and a reconciliation of sorts with Rachel. Whew.

Sound familiar? It should. Loss and suffering are common themes, the stuff that drama is made of.

Western Washington University’s production of “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” represents a journeyman attempt to breathe life into a play whose plot is, to put it kindly, a bit unoriginal and whole lot sentimental.

“Gillian” is a play that suffers from a lack of tension, a play that needs more conflict between its principal characters. We keep waiting for something to happen and it never does. This is a production that merely runs out of gas and then the lights go up.

The actors try to create a sense of completeness and to reach a kind of conclusion but, ultimately, they come up short. Not too short, but short enough to make one shrug one’s shoulders and say “so what?”

As David, Damiian Mariio Lang gives us a character who looks spare, withdrawn and just plain lost. Even his eyes reflect a melancholy feeling.

Unfortunately, what Lang also gives us is a man who is too restrained for the character we suspect him to be. David is haunted, tortured by the memory of Gillian. We need to see more of his pain seep through, for it is his pain that keeps him at arm’s length from his daughter.

Pamela West’s Esther is uneven at times, though generally believable and bearable. There is a big scene with David where she seems to back off and subordinate the focus of the exchange to Lang, which makes it lose something as a result. Otherwise, she holds her own.

As Esther’s husband Paul, Donald J. Larson gives a steady performance as the family peacemaker and ersatz comedian. David’s closest friend, Paul is consistently genial and deliberately non-threatening. Always effervescent and quick with a joke, Larson’s Paul is wise and supportive and funny all at the same time. Of all the characters in this production, his is the one that hooks us.

This is a mixed blessing because it creates a distraction and de-emphasizes the play’s central character, which is David.

The other performers, Christine M. Stafford, Margaret R. Savas, Heather York and Karen Barich, as David’s daughter, ex-student-turned-lover, neighbor, and the spectral Gillian, respectively, all deliver sturdy, competent and well defined performances.

All in all, watching this production is like listening to Windham Hill music. For those of you unfamiliar with Windham Hill, it is a sound that’s soft and pleasant to the ear, but is also paced and simple, and finally, a bit listless. Like an artichoke, it is bland and tedious, and there’s just a little to much to chew on.

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