Forbidden Planet fuses comedy and tragedy

Forbidden Planet Production introduces “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday,” a play that deals with death, grief and, as director Michelle Coyle puts it, the idea of, “celebrating someone else’s life by living your own,” on Thursday. The play is no pick-me-up after a stressful week, but it offers a touching story, particularly for anyone who has lost someone close. It is certainly an about-face from FPP’s last production, the comedy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.”

The plot slowly unfolds as David, played by Eric Ryles, hosts a family reunion in Nantucket to honor his deceased wife Gillian on what would have been her 37th birthday. David and his daughter Rachel (Kristin David) still grieve from Gillian’s death, which happened almost two years ago.

David’s sister-in-law Esther (Annie O’Neill) and her husband Paul (Brian Calvary) visit Nantucket for the reunion with a little surprise in tow. They bring Kevin (Stephanie Roswell), a former college student of David’s who has had a sex change since graduating and works with Paul. Kevin, who is now gay, has decided to do a little dabbling in the “man-market” by making a grab at David.

Rachael sees Kevin’s as a chance for her father to get on with his life rather than considering her competition with her mother’s memory. This is an unexpectedly healthy attitude for a teenager who has lost her mother, but the situation is understandable considering David’s inability to mentally separate from his late wife Gillian (Kat Sanchez), who appears as a ghost to converse with him throughout the play.

Bringing up the rear is Cindy (Ayana Morali), the 16-year-old friend of Rachel’s who is also smitten with the much older David.

Everyone involved in the story hopes David will move on with his life. Even Gillian, in one of her frequent paranormal conversations with David, tells him to move on with Kevin. Paul, David’s friend of 20 years, tries to get him back into teaching. What unfolds is a story of David’s struggle to get over Gillian and reconnect with his daughter and his life.

The cast does a commendable job with the space they have in the black-box Downstage Lisner theater and a script that is contrived at times. The actors deal with difficult emotions that come from the play’s portrayal of complex character relationships.

David deteriorates into a distant, obsessive and volatile man, barely holding on to the edge. His frequent outbursts, as well as those of the rest of the cast, are disconcerting but potent. Ryles convincingly portrays a torn relationship with his character’s daughter.

Strong women rule the show. Annie O’Neill does a wonderful job portraying Esther – a quirky, confrontational sister-in-law who is desperately trying to save both Rachel and David from the depths of grief.

But the show is not all serious.

“My cast really wants to make it a comedy,” Coyle said, referring to playful banter that develops in a family obsessed with trivia, particularly dealing with astronomy.

Much of the comedy in the play is derived from the overabundance of idiosyncrasies found in the family, something that provides subtle humor. The audience can appreciate as most families are nearly as strange, although most families don’t generally break out into song at random points in the day.

Coyle is enthusiastic about the upcoming show.

“We’re really ready, more so than any other show I’ve done before,” she said.

And her excitement is justified. “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” is fused with energy throughout its two hour run and inspires a thoughtful and enjoyable night at the theatre.

“To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday” plays at the Lisner Down Stage at 8 p.m. April 5, 6 and 7. An additional matinee takes place April 8 at 4 p.m.

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