"The Last Five Years:" love, backwards and forwards
How do we remember the lifetime of a love? For some of us, the pangs of the end reverberate strongest; for others, the joy of the beginning burns so brightly that we can ignore the ringing in our ears. "The Last Five Years," by Jason Robert Brown is a song-cycle musical that tells the story of a five-year marriage the way two hearts remember it: backwards and forwards, simultaneously.
Kaf Warman, Associate Artistic Director of the Island Theatre Workshop (ITW) and Associate Professor at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama, directs the play. It stars Ericka Strasburg and Peter Moses, both Carnegie Mellon acting majors, as Cathy Hyatt and Jamie Wellerstein.
Cathy is a struggling young actress, making her way the best she can in New York City. She begins the play at the end of her relationship with Jamie, when she is "still hurting" and travels back through time and heartache to the beginning when she is waiting for love and finds it in Jamie. Jamie, a young writer experiencing sudden success, starts at the beginning, when it seems as though his wait for love has ended in meeting Cathy.
He then moves forward through time to their disintegration. The result is an incredible tension between the actors, enforced by the music and the staging. The actors never directly interact until their stories intersect on their wedding day. They meet both physically and musically in a beautiful duet; the only true one in the show. The effect is a strong sense of release until time pulls the Cathy and Jamie away from each other again as they continue down their reverse timelines. The stakes are high and the emotions are real, but the score is orchestrated so that the actors wind up coming to each other's comic relief, ballads followed by up-tempo shifts.
The set (three black cubes), props, and costuming are minimal. In this show, as in all relationships, there are just two people in time and space trying to make it work. The play relies on the storytelling ability of the actors to set the scene and ensure audience connection, but there is very little straight text or dialogue. The brunt of the story-telling takes place in alternating musical solos.
Photos by Ralph Stewart
Mr. Moses comments, "The hardest and most fulfilling part was the music; it is so difficult ... you notice something new every time."
Ms. Strasburg added that the difficulty is about the "balance between performing the music and connecting to the character."
Ms. Strasburg and Mr. Moses rise to the occasion. The two manage, with minimal text, to paint the landscape of this couple's world and to fill the stage. Ms. Strasburg's performance is strong and consistently infuses the music and the air with color and emotion. Mr. Moses is dynamic, and when faced with the challenge of meta-theatre in the number "The Schmuel Song", telling a story within a story, he does so with gusto and ease.
"There is a phrase I use with my students," said director Warman; "It is that actors are the cake, everything else is just icing." "The Last Five Years" is cake: simple and rich.
What is great about this story, Ms. Warman says, "is that everyone brings their own perspective to it. I want people to think, 'How have I done this?'"
The pointed finger of blame cannot settle on either Cathy or Jamie. Instead, it floats between the two; leaning to and fro, as each effectively proves their earnestness. "The Last Five Years" offers every generation the opportunity to remember love and the times when we brought our best selves to it, backwards and forwards.
The Last Five Years is being presented at the Katherine Cornell Theatre Thursday-Sunday, June 19-July 6. Tickets are $20 at the door. No reservations.
Adriana Stimola, a summer resident, is an actress and singer who will be appearing in "As You Like It" at the Tisbury Amphitheater.