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Theatre in Review: The Lucky Ones (Ars Nova/Connelly Theatre)

Abigail and Shaun Bengson Photo: Ben Arons Photography.

In their previous show, Hundred Days -- seen only a few months ago -- Abigail and Shaun Bengson offered a remarkably incomplete confession. This musical memoir focused on their meeting, followed by a rush into marriage and even quicker separation; the reason for this instability had to with an unspecified series of events in Abigail's adolescence that left her unable to trust loving relationships. Hundred Days has its charms, but it was hobbled by its lack of candor; without an understanding of what drove Abigail's behavior, the events described didn't really make sense. No such problems affect The Lucky Ones, in which Abigail comes clean about her personal history. Having seen it, I realize that it is something of a miracle that she is alive, married, a mother, and working at her art.

Abigail grew up in an ad hoc utopian community of the sort that proliferated in the 1970s. Her parents, Tom and Sherrill, lived in proximity to Mary, the widow of Tom's brother, in Lotus, "a part of Vermont that happens to be in Maine." The adults operated the Blue Mountain School, an experiment in education -- both primary and secondary -- in which no grades were given; higher consciousness was the goal. As Mary sings, "We believed that raising kids to be good/To be kind was a political/And a spiritual act/A way to heal the world." Not for nothing -- given what follows -- we are told that all three adults "came from abusive homes." Their watchword is "God is the space between people" and they don't deny the existence of evil so much as they ignore it altogether.

The ménage includes Abigail's sisters, Phoebe and Emily, and Mary's children, Amber and Kai. Their lives are thoroughly intermingled: The adults work together and the children move between houses, all existing in a seemingly happy intimacy. In its earlier, weaker passages, The Lucky Ones tries to satirize the adults in their earnest correctness and vaguely expressed spirituality. Sherrill can't bring herself to clean up the family's phone answering machine because, she says, "I can't erase the voices of people I love that might die." When Emily complains about the mice and spiders that are taking over the house, Sherrill replies, "Maybe we are the pests in their house; did you ever think about that?" When urged to the breakfast table, Tom replies, "No thank you, dear, I have my guava juice and my newfound determination to keep a kind of kosher despite rejecting my orthodox upbringing." There is also the odd gag that could easily be scrubbed. Emily, making conversation with a new girl at school, asks, "Do you like Phish?" "I'm a vegetarian," comes the reply.

Even so, this is no cracked-wheat You Can't Take It With You. "I weigh about two hundred fifty pounds," Abigail says of her fifteen-year-old self. "There are a lot of guys who call me their best friend." She also catches her father in a surprisingly intimate conversation with another teacher. ("We were speaking about eternity. We were speaking about God," he says.) Sherrill also displays distinct hoarder tendencies and is oddly neglectful of the many animals ("three cats, two dogs, a guinea pig, a rabbit, two birds") with whom the family shares its house. But, so far, the overall tone is affectionate and lightly comic.

Among the younger generation, Kai is something of a golden being, a gifted musician who is thoroughly unaware of his own shaggy charm. (As played by the gifted Damon Daunno, it's easy to grasp what everyone else sees in him.) He falls for Emma, a new student who ends up living with Mary, and soon the couple, still teenagers, are cohabiting in his mother's house, with her approval. Then Kai, who was always eccentric -- he would climb to the top of a tree and announce he was teleported there -- becomes withdrawn, seemingly confused. Stopped by a cop who points out the marijuana pipe on his dashboard, his only response is "Reality could be a simulation." He begins having visions of angels. And then something happens, which I'm not going to describe -- if you see The Lucky Ones, you should experience the same punch in the gut I did -- and it is the kind of shattering tragedy from which there is no return, a waking nightmare that can never be fully dispersed. It is followed by illness and Tom and Sherrill's ugly divorce. The school is closed down, the family scattered. Abigail, forced to confront the turbulence that churned underneath the surface of her seemingly serene childhood, flees to New York -- and, ultimately, to Shaun -- at the earliest opportunity.

The Lucky Ones unfolds in three parts: The first depicts the families' apparently contented way of life, the second covers its dissolution, and in the third part, Abigail, the only one who still speaks to everyone, interviews them, searching for some common ground. Now a mother herself, she yearns to heal the divisions, to reinstate the clan that nurtured her for so long. It's a fruitless endeavor, but it does provide her with some thoughtful and deeply moving material, delivered with tremendous sensitivity by the sterling supporting cast. Of the parental figures, Tom Nelis' Tom gets the least amount of stage time -- one senses that Abigail is still struggling to forgive him -- but the actor nails the character's smiling sense of entitlement as well as the lurking resentment at being cast as the family villain. As Sherrill, Myra Lucretia Taylor does beautifully by a number in which she visits the now-shuttered school, and, watching a crew plant new trees, sings "I said can't you see/Can't you see what I tried to do/Tried to let things grow/The way they naturally do." Maryann Plunkett brings it all home with her innate skill as Mary, looking back in sorrow mixed with hard-won understanding.

One wonders if the involvement of Sarah Gancher, who co-wrote the book with the Bengsons, played a role in providing the broader view and increased candor of The Lucky Ones. In any case, the Bengsons have once again supplied a brace of distinctive indie-folk tunes matched with probing lyrics that illuminate the family's oddball, self-invented way of life, and, later, their halting attempts at assessing the damage. The title song, which affirms that survivors, no matter how scarred, have blessings that must be counted, is especially lovely.

In terms of design, Rachel Hauck has provided a basic bandstand setup, not unlike the one used for Hundred Days, but she also provides inventive touches of her own, including a "bonfire" that is created by piling plastic chairs above and around a floor lighting unit blasting an amber-colored wash. The lighting, by Amith Chandrashaker, is especially fluent; it reshapes the space as needed, creates a stark-white classroom look, shifts between a warm incandescent glow for the flashbacks and the chilling cold light of today, and also creates some beautiful upstage-downstage color combinations. Working in an acoustically challenging space, Nick Kourtides' sound design delivers maximum clarity.

If Hundred Days came across as an evasive, even self-indulgent work, The Lucky Ones is an almost foolhardy act of bravery. We may not be getting the full story -- the account of the divorce case is sketchy enough that one assumes that Abigail is skipping over some of the most distressing details, especially the role it played in her mother's ill health -- but, nevertheless, she has put these deeply personal materials to work in asking probing questions about happiness, fidelity, and one's place in the world. Maybe she can't get her family back, but she can give them to us, in their extraordinary complexity. -- David Barbour

(9 April 2018)

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