Shakespeare. The name alone can transport one back to High School English class, your eyes glazing over at the barrage of Elizabethan prose.
Bluegrass. Now we’re talking. Summertime. Jammin’. Sing-alongs.
But what if you merged them together? Well, you would get The Heath, the latest World Premiere production from Merrimack Repertory Theatre. And maybe the two are not so incongruous, for there has always been a bittersweet, even tragic element to bluegrass. The lament of a lost love in a mandolin lick, a freight train’s mournful howl in the drone of a fiddle – or is that the cry of a diminished man who realizes he has lost his kingdom and his mind?
The Heath – an autobiographical montage by Lauren Gunderson – uses monologue, dialogue, projection and, of course, music to explore the author’s coming to terms with a relationship that never was. Like MRT’s recent Slow Food, regret – and how one manages it – underlies the emotions that drive the work.
And the banjo. Did I mention that?
Slated for the role of Lauren, actress Miranda Barnett picked up a used banjo in a shop near her home in South Carolina six months ago and learned to play. Its previous owner had passed away, and the instrument seems to have found the perfect new home with Miranda and MRT. But don’t think her musical skills are lacking. She has a fine grasp of the instrument, with clean fingering and precise rolls. But technical know-how isn’t so important in bluegrass. It’s all about the feeling. Because, as Lauren/Miranda says, “When you strum a banjo, you’re in the South.”
The attempt to recover a missing part of oneself, not only by learning the banjo, but by exploring that unknown lineage, makes The Heath an emotional rollercoaster. You will laugh, cry (do not forget the tissues), and sing along to classic and original tunes. George Judy, who plays Lauren’s “Paw Paw,” is an astonishment, as he moves from lucidity to – well – something else, denying her the opportunity to atone for past contempt and disinterest.
And Shakespeare. Let’s not forget that.
Judy also inhabits King Lear, who Gunderson uses to make sense of this great storm that encompasses her family. When Judy’s rich baritone fills the theater, you are reminded of why the Bard has remained relevant all these years. The vivid characters and stories of hopes and dreams, decline and death are universal, from the 17th century to the 21st.
So the story of King Lear fits these times well. Aging and going mad, Lear recklessly divides his realm between the daughters who shamelessly flatter him, leaving the honest Cordelia disinherited, thus setting in motion an epic tragedy, culminating in Lear’s dramatic soliloquy to the sky, with only the Fool by his side, briefly cognizant of his grave error, naked in the thunderous storm on the heath.
The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.