by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & R & lt;/span & eturning to some of the same territory as his award-winning play Vesta, Bryan Harnetiaux -- Spokane's best playwright of the past 25 years -- has fashioned a mostly involving 70-minute meditation on death called Dusk(through May 18 at the Civic Studio Theater). It focuses on Gil (Nik Adams), who's 65, dying and unprepared for it -- or, as he describes himself, "No will, no 401(k), no God ... just a boggy heart." A social worker arrives to help Gil make some quality-of-care decisions just at the time that all three of his children choose to descend on the family home. Gil's anger -- at them, at death -- drives the plot.
Dusk is the first draft of a good play about death and dying, and it's certainly worth watching for 70 minutes of the life you have left. There's plenty to admire here: The theme itself, for example, with its insistence that most of us run away from discussions about death without even knowing why. And Harnetiaux's adeptness at undercutting sentimentality with silliness: Repeatedly, he uses jokes to defuse intense situations. His technique of characterizing offstage characters so that the five onstage people seem to exist in an actual, rounded world. Stretches of sharp back-and-forth dialogue. His efficiency in recounting something literal -- a fishing-trip story, a family tradition -- and then revisiting it for a metaphorical payoff.
Some aspects need revising, however. A couple of flashback scenes were unclear both in terms of basic plot and thematic intent. What game were the children playing? What exactly was going on at the railroad tracks? If the idea was to demonstrate that the contentious adults had once been carefree children, it was confusing to bring on two of the adults as children before they had ever appeared onstage as their older selves.
One major implausibility is the presence -- throughout a dysfunctional family's extended duking it out over what is literally an issue of life and death -- of a woman whom every one of them is meeting for the first time. As Elizabeth, the social worker and nurse practitioner who advises Gil on his end-of-life care options, Brooke Kiener has a thankless task. Clipping off her consonants so precisely that it becomes distracting, Kiener is given great swaths of medical terminology to pronounce and explain. The effect is to make her character seem like a well-meaning robot. Playwright and actor have tried to humanize Elizabeth, giving her a little humorous give-and-take with Gil, and Kiener projects maternal concern. But Elizabeth nevertheless sits at that kitchen table as a distracting plot device. The playwright could achieve greater plausibility by spreading the action over several days instead of a single histrionic night -- and by absenting Elizabeth to leave the family members room to argue alone and on their own terms.
Gil's three children fall into recognizable types: the doofus, the career man, the responsible one. As the daughter who stayed close to home and took Dad to all his doctor visits, Sara Nicholls has another unforgiving role: It would be easy to let Nan be a nag and nothing more. But there's an especially good father-daughter confrontation between Adams and Nicholls that brings some powerful emotions to the fore. None of us wants to admit responsibility when it comes to our loved ones and leave-taking.
Director Diana Trotter keeps the action flowing around that weighty kitchen table. At one point, Trotter groups her troops effectively in a near-death tableau that characterizes everyone onstage without sentimentalizing the scene. And that father-daughter face-off had good intensity.
Early on, in conveying Gil's rage against the dying of his own personal light, Adams is convincing, even a little startling: an abrupt codger who knows he doesn't have much time left. With hands wavering and belt cinched up to emphasize his shrunken torso, Adams certainly looks the part of the reluctant retiree with heart failure. Later on, however, Adams relies a bit too much on techniques of comic exasperation -- the goggling eyes, the flung-up hands -- when Gil still seems genuinely angry about his impending death and the way his three adult children are handling it.
& lt;span class= "dropcap " & S & lt;/span & till, it's a privilege for Spokane playgoers to be in on the first draft of a play written by a man who's 25 years older than he was when he started writing for the Civic. (Come to think of it, so are the rest of us.)
When Dusk starts to turn into night -- when it comes to directly confronting the fact of his own mortality -- Gil can be heard to mutter, "No matter what, you're always surprised." Part of what he's getting at is that down deep, it's hard for any of us to wrap our minds around the idea of our own particular non-existence.
Dying is something other people do. Until it's not.