Keith Baker writes in his “Director’s Notes” for Main Stage West’s current production of Kenneth Lonergan’s “This is Our Youth” (running through November 17th) “…as a 35 year old, what the f**k do I really know about being old vs. being young?” Well, it’s not a question he really needed to ask, and I’m sure it’s not a question Lonergan asked himself at age 34 when this play opened in 1996, but if he did, my answer to both of them would be, “Apparently, much.”
Set in the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1982, “…Youth” is 48 hours in the life of three tail-end “baby boomers”, children raised in the late 1960’s and 70’s who now must face the very different world of the 1980’s. Nineteen year old Warren Stroub (Lukas Thompson) has been thrown out of his house by his well-to-do father, and seeks shelter at the less-than-toney cramped, squalid studio apartment of his friend and drug dealer Dennis Ziegler (Jimmy Gagarin). Warren’s not sure what he’s going to do, or where is going to go, but he has stolen fifteen thousand dollars from his father to assist him in his decision. One of the things he knows he wants to do is connect with Jessica (Lauren Heney), a friend of Dennis’ girlfriend. The interaction of these three characters lays bare the universal problems and challenges that come from the inexorable shift from adolescent to adult. Add to the mix the cultural and political changes at the time from the liberal philosophies of the ”Great Society” to the more “me”-centered conservatism of the “Reagan era” and you have the makings of a very invigorating night of theatre.
What invigorated me most was watching three young performers take command of the stage from the start and never let up. All three actors brought to vivid life characters that were instantly recognizable to me. (I should note at this point that I happened to be nineteen in 1982, I happened to live on the East Coast, I happened to have an interesting group of friends and, of course, I happened to be dealing with my own adolescent angst. ) Thompson’s “Warren” is the naïve, impulsive youth whose emotional growth spurt will take a significant leap in the course of 48 hours. Gagarin’s “Dennis” is the slightly older, incredibly manipulative ‘friend’ who was does everything possible not to grow up and who has an answer for everything but a solution for nothing. Heney’s “Jessica” exhibits a blasé attitude that masks a self-centeredness that leads to an incredibly inconsiderate request – a request that forces Warren to begin the process of rethinking the status of his relationships and his future.
It may sound oxymoronic, but these young actors all give exceedingly mature performances. Thompson conveys all of the conflicting emotions at play within “Warren”, who is slowly grasping the impending burden of responsibility and the accompanying loss of freedom that comes with age. Gagarin hits all the highs (literally) and lows as the manic friend who lives in the moment and can’t control his impulses. “Dennis” has no grand plan for himself (other than continuing to sell drugs and sponge off his mother) and his grand plans for others end in failure. Heney’s character encapsulates the self-centeredness of the era via an indifference to the selfishness of her actions. “Jessica” may seem bored and disinterested in life, but there’s a lot going on underneath her jaded exterior.
These performances reflect well on the next generation of local theatrical talent. I have been very taken by the work of our younger craftsmen in several recent productions, and I am pleased to see that this caliber of work may be the rule, rather than the exception, by which to judge this generation of artists.
Which is not to say that old farts like Keith Baker don’t deserve their kudos as well. Baker not only coaxed fine performances from his cast, but he is also responsible for the Production Design, which magnificently captures the look and feel of a confined, congested “spacious” New York apartment. Main Stage West often finds ways to make the most of their limited space, and they often do that by adding detail that can get lost in a larger venue. My favorite detail in this set is the color of Dennis’ refrigerator – avocado green. All the rage in the 1960’s, it was EXACTLY what you would expect to see in a ramshackle apartment twenty years after its prime.
With regard to detail, take note of what Dennis is watching on TV as the play opens. You never see it, but you do hear it, and you may even recognize it. It’s an episode of the original “Twilight Zone” series entitled “The Obsolete Man”. I spent many a late night watching that show on New York’s Channel 11 and, for me, that one detail instantly took me back to 1982 New York – but there’s more to it than just the evocation of a time and place. While you’re enjoying the mellifluous tones of the late-greats Fritz Weaver and Burgess Meredith interpreting the well-written dialogue of Rod Serling, I encourage you to listen carefully to WHAT is being said. Written in 1961, it was seen as a comment on the dangers of totalitarianism, but consider what it might mean to someone coming of age in the 1980’s.
Dynamic and nuanced performances by an energetic and talented troika, an incisive script with well-balanced comedic and dramatic moments based in reality, and inventive, detailed set/light/sound designs all come together to make for an evening of excellent theatre that is well worth your time and the cost of a ticket. If you’re looking to take a break from the familiar and well-worn often seen on local stages, you have two more weeks to catch the breath-of-fresh-air that is “This is Our Youth”. Try and make it.
This is Our Youth
Thu/Fri/Sat @ 8pm, Sun @ 5pm through November 17th
Main Stage West
104 N Main St
Sebastopol, CA 95472