In 1900 the city of Chicago reversed the flow of the Chicago River so that it discharged into the Mississippi River instead of Lake Michigan. The flow of time is often compared to a river’s current; but its march is inexorable: its flow cannot be reversed except in fading memories. These truths chime through Philip Dawkins’s FAILURE: A LOVE STORY, a charming play now getting its East Coast premiere with Azuka Theatre.
The scene is set: “It’s 1928 and it is the last year of each of the Fail sisters’ lives.” The sisters—serious and hardworking Gertie (Isa St. Clair), swimming-obsessed Jenny June (Tabitha Allen), and fun-loving Nelly (Mary Beth Shrader)—live in a clockworking shop on the banks of the Chicago River. One by one, they attract the affections of dashing stock market whiz Mortimer Mortimer (Kevin Meehan), or Mort Mort for short (get it? parlez-vous francais?). Each time death wins them first. Their demises are woven into a moving, if painfully earnest, story of love and mortality, of time and of memory.
“Nelly was the first of the Fail sisters to die, followed soon after by Jenny June and Gertie, in that order. Of blunt object, disappearance, and consumption, in that order.” We know how this story will develop, the plot points are telegraphed even when they aren’t explicitly foretold. The charm is in the telling—a flow of magical flashbacks. Lindsey Mayer’s set moves seamlessly from the watch shop to the family home above, to a river pier. Scarves, blankets, and curtains become the menagerie of snakes, dogs, and birds gathered by adopted younger brother John F. Fail (Brendan Dalton). This is Azuka’s New Professionals Production; these are young actors at the beginning of their careers. But under Allison Heishman’s attentive direction and the leadership of mentor actor Meehan, each cast member creates a full and consistent character. Their energy is winning.
FAILURE is a simple tale, like a novella for children, and the play strikes discordant notes of naivety and melancholy, as when Mortimer and John F. discuss a sick bird:
MORTIMER: He’s picking out his feathers.
JOHN F. I think that’s out of loneliness.
MORTIMER: Is that normal?
JOHN F.: Loneliness?
But like a well-written children’s book, FAILURE has language rich in poetry (“the water was so cold it felt like it was tattooing itself on his his feet”), and a simplicity of plot belying a depth of meaning. One by one the clocks in the shop wind down, their parts are used as a coffin. The past becomes memories, but even failure can be remembered as a love story. May 8-26, 2013. azukatheatre.org.