If only we knew in advance that we’ll never see someone again, we’d sculpt these moments into works of art. But as rendered in Life After, a new musical by Britta Johnson, people usually come and go without a schedule.
When Alice’s father Frank dies suddenly in a car crash, the Canadian teenager replays a voice message from him—one that she’d resolutely ignored. Her stunned grief fills Goodman Theatre’s vast stage as her mother, sister and others swirl around her. “Something happened,” everyone sings, relaying the news and driving Alice to listen, over and over again, to that fateful voicemail in which Frank expresses regret for a fight they’d had that morning.
Adolescent Intensity at Goodman Theatre
Directed by Anne Tippe, the nine-person cast takes us through Alice’s effort to rebalance herself after the accident that killed her father. A piece of information consumes her: Frank had had an 8:00 pm flight to a conference yet the car crash occurred at 8:22 pm. Why was he in a car on Route 33 instead of on the plane? That mystery propels her to gather facts with which she constructs a guilt-ridden, and eventually disproven, explanation. As Alice, Samantha Williams brings adolescent intensity to her search for a frame that will hold her version of the family story.
LIFE AFTER"S Ensemble of Equals
The cast includes eight women and one man (Frank in backflashes) – all tightly sketched without making a point of gender, race or appearance. Life After deals with specific individuals and universal pain. In this reviewer’s opinion, its female-centric ensemble of equals carries the show deftly, each performance in sync with the others. In addition to Alice, her sister, her mother, her best friend and her teacher, there are the Furies, a mythology-inspired chorus of three women. They invade Alice’s physical and emotional space as they shift from uninvited mourners to high school Mean Girls to dancers at a Vegas-style self-help conference.
Todd Rosenthal’s set makes a large stage work for an intimate show by using every inch of it. The family home stretches to the top of the proscenium, attic silhouetted above and Frank’s office with pink and coral floral wallpaper below; a winter road laced with telephone poles and evergreen trees illuminates at various times of day. As Alice closes in on her reckoning with reality, snow falls from high above, reducing her corporeal size as it enlarges her soul.
At first, Life After struck this reviewer as an extremely well-crafted after school special that doesn’t push boundaries, and largely stays within known musical territory. Everything feels urgent and authentic, but nothing too uncontrollable happens. Yet, the fresh and lush score with a gripping narrative works in its favor. We dwell comfortably with these people and let them take us where we might be unwilling to go to otherwise.
Life After is a satisfying choice for those who have lost or may lose someone precious without perfecting their last moments together. That, of course, means all of us.
Samantha Williams as Alice
Skyler Volpe as Kate
Bryonha Marie Parham as beth
Lucy Panush as Hannah
Jen Sese as Ms. Hopkins
Chelsea Williams as Fury
Lauryn Hobbs as Fury
Ashley Pérez Flanagan as Fury
Paul Alexander Nolan as Frank
Set Design by Todd Rosenthal
Costume Design by Sarafina Bush
Lighting Design by Yi Zhao
Sound Design by Joanna Lynne Staub
Choreography by Ann Yee
Music Supervision, Arrangements and Orchestrations by Lynne Shankel
June 11 - July 17, 2022
170 N Dearborn Street
Chicago, IL 60601
About the Author: Susan Lieberman
Susan Lieberman is a Jeff-winning playwright, journalist, teacher and script consultant who commits most of her waking hours to Chicago theatre. Her radio drama In the Shadows aired on BBC Radio 4 last season.