As Morris Panych's new play "In Absentia" opens, a woman named Colette stands in a living room talking with her husband, Tom, who stands behind her.
Though the two are having a conversation, it becomes apparent as other people enter the room that no one else sees or hears him. Throughout the play, Colette will converse with Tom, who has been missing in Colombia for nearly a year.
It's a delicate conceit, which pays off beautifully in the finely nuanced new production at Sacramento's B Street Theatre.
In this superb U.S. premiere of Panych's comedic drama, the audience is treated to an emotional roller-coaster ride through the heart and mind of a woman both deeply conflicted and deeply in love.
As heavy as it sounds and affecting as it is, director Buck Busfield's production has an uplifting vibrancy coming from an embracing narrative, performed by a disarmingly stunning ensemble.
Centered on Elisabeth Nunziato's resolute Colette, the fluid production tracks back and forth through her steady memory and the desultory present as she comes to terms with the reality of Tom's (Kurt Johnson) disappearance. Though cerebral and often melancholy, Colette actively pursues life, grabbing tightly to the love she and Tom shared. The relationship was not always ideal, and though Panych provides depth in the writing, Nunziato unaffectedly animates and extends the character in a bravura performance.
Breaking the seal on Colette's isolation at the edge of a frozen lake (she lives in remote Canada) is young, mysterious stranger Jasper (Dan Fagan). Jasper knows more about Colette than he should and slowly reveals that his recent movements mirrored Tom's before the disappearance.
Fagan brings a sly, combustible ambiguity to Jasper as he insinuates himself into the household where Colette's sister Evelyn (Jamie Jones) is also staying. Colette's helpful neighbor Bill (David Pierini), openly in love with her, ineffectually watches as Jasper becomes the curious object of Colette's affection and attention.
It all happens with seamless jumps of time, narrative and consciousness that keep the audience eagerly leaning forward to stay with the continually morphing story. The ensemble's magic makes it all unfold seemingly spontaneously in front of us, but more deeply, almost as if it were in our minds instead of onstage.
Their perfect timing, popping in and out of doors, feels like carefully rehearsed farce, where each entrance hits on a line for maximum effect. Here, it's the work of a mutably in-synch, virtuoso ensemble.
Johnson's stately simplicity adds to his overflowing body of outstanding work, while Jones and Pierini create masterful individual portraits. At any time you can look around the intimate B Street stage and see the story powerfully unfolding in every character's face and physical presence.
Though "In Absentia" just had its world premiere in Montreal in February, Panych substantially revised the script for the version Busfield and co-director Laura Baker worked with at B Street.
While the story deals with profound loss, it's much more about the redemptive power of love than the difficult process of grief.
What: In the U.S. premiere of the new play by Morris Panych, the audience takes an emotional roller-coaster ride through the mind of a woman encountering a mysterious young drifter who may hold the key to her husband's disappearance.
When: 6:30 p.m. Tuesdays; 2 and 6:30 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays; 5 and 9 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays, through April 15
Where: B Street Theatre Mainstage, 2711 B St., Sacramento
Tickets: $18-$30, $5 student rush
Time: 2 hours, including one intermission
Information: (916) 443-5300, http://bstreetheatre.org
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