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Incline’s “Last Five Years”: Chronology Disrupted

Review by Doug Iden of “The Last Five Years” : Incline Theatre

Prepare for a mind-bending experience when you journey through “The Last Five Years“ playing at the Warsaw Federal Incline Theater.  Using an unusual structure which features Cathy Hiatt (Lauren Magness) telling her story backwards from five years in the future to today while Jamie Wellerstein (Elliott Handkins) narrates his tale chronologically, we are told about their, often, tempestuous relationship.

Told almost entirely through song, the show opens when Cathy, wrenchingly, sings about her failed marriage in one of the best songs “Still Hurting”.  Therefore, it is not a spoiler alert to immediately discover that we are witnessing the dissolution of a marriage and the rending of trust between the characters.  In the next song, Jamie gushes about the girl he just met (five years earlier) as his “Shiksa Goddess”.  One minor theme is a Jewish man marrying outside of his faith.

Their songs alternate as the show progresses and as the audience discovers both the future and present state of their relationship which includes love, happiness and heartbreak.  One major element that begins to appear early is the difficulty of trying to make a career of the Arts, especially when one partner is prospering while the other is declining.  In the present, Jamie has successfully published a book while Cathy, in the future, is desperately trying to revive her flagging musical theater career.  One of most interesting scenes shows Cathy agonizing through a series of auditions with hundreds of other girls “younger and thinner than I am”.  After waiting in line for hours, she finally hands her audition sheet music to the stage pianist (Music Director and keyboardist Michael Kennedy) and alternates between her mundane audition song and her inner thoughts about how the tryout is proceeding in “Climbing Uphill”.  It’s unusual to see a musician become a character.  

Throughout the show, we alternatively see the characters onstage together or separately.  However, with one exception, they are not interacting.  It’s as though each character is singing to a ghost.  The only time they actually interact is the finale of Act One when they are married and sing the duet “The Next Ten Minutes”.

Handkins as Jamie and Magness as Cathy have created solid and believable characters.  Handkins shows a cockiness and extraverted personality which is infectious while Magness portrays a less ambitious and somewhat naïve role of a women who “just wants to be loved”.  They each have good singing voices, however, they are occasionally off pitch, especially when they sing loudly.  In the softer and more retrospective songs, their singing is good.  

Time is clearly a major theme.  As Director Tim Perrino stated in his opening comments about exits, etc., the story is about time:  how you spend it and what you do with it.  Time can be positive or it can be debilitating and corrosive.  The “time” theme is personified by Brett Bowling’s static but very effective staging.  In the middle of a mostly bare stage, we see the partial face of a giant timepiece showing the roman numerals for the numbers nine through twelve.  The clock is also an impressionistic sundial.  As the play progresses, the actors move the sundial as an arc and walk through a “door” in the sundial to symbolize the passage of time and a scene change.  Another indication of scene and time changes are the contemporary costumes designed by Caren Brady.  

Both the set and the costumes help us navigate through the story as it progresses in opposite directions.  As an audience member, you need to do a little more work than normal to follow what is happening.  If you are used to ignoring the first several minutes of a play while munching your popcorn, you may miss some important points.

This show has more meat than you may assume at the start.  It is, primarily, a love story but it also addresses infidelity, lack of communication between the characters (“Why do you always contradict me?”), egos, differing views of what life and success are and commitment to a lifelong relationship.

Based upon his own failed marriage, the playwright, lyricist and composer Jason Robert Brown has written some excellent lyrics but, with a few exceptions, a rather pedestrian score.  However, he has previously won Tony awards for scoring Parade and The Bridges of Madison County.  You will not leave the theater humming the songs.  The six-person orchestra which is onstage, however, is excellent with a special nod to violinist Rachel Lee.  

While not initially successful off-Broadway, the play has achieved a somewhat cult status among local theaters.  It is not an easy play to watch but it is worth the effort.  This production is good but a little uneven.

Executive Artistic Director Tim Perrino did address the coronavirus situation in his opening remarks.  They have sanitized the theatre repeatedly and plan to have no more than 100 audience members per show for the foreseeable future.  You might want to check the box office however before you go to ensure that there will be a performance.  I attended opening night on March 12 but Perrino said he would be reviewing the situation on a continuing basis.

So, grab your time machine and travel forward and backwards to the Warsaw Federal Incline theater through March 29.