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Theatre in the Park’s closing show for the 2020-21 season is Beth Graham’s The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble. The play is compact, running about 100 minutes without an intermission and sporting only four actors. Together, director Jesse Gephart and his cast have created a highly stirring and entertaining production.
The play centers on a family unit of four: a recently widowed mother and her three children, all of whom are in their late teens to twenties. The main character is Iris, who is the middle child; her older sister, Sara, is a single mom with a daughter she has named – inexplicably, to Iris – Heaven. We do not actually see Heaven, but she is a topic of discussion more than once. The youngest of the family is Peter, who seems to be the most unperturbed at the recent turn of events. Having only recently lost her husband, Bernice informs her children very early in the show that she is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s.
This announcement throws Sara into an absolute conniption; it also throws Iris for a loop, although less so than her elder sister. Iris is the narrator of the play, and it is she whom we learn the most about, mostly because she has the lion’s share of lines. Mama also drops a second bomb on the family. After Sara takes Bernice for a second opinion, which verifies the original diagnosis, Bernice also announces that she has come to a decision regarding her illness. Bernice is the second of the family unit to come down with Alzheimer’s; her mother came down with it, and Bernice watched as her mother slowly “disappeared,” leaving a shell of a person in her place. Having been a witness to this slow passing, and having been devastated by it, she tells the family after the second opinion that she will not make her children go through that same slow torture. Once she begins to show definite signs of losing her faculties, she intends to take her own life.
Having already thrown the children for one loop, this second announcement leaves all three of them stunned. But it is Iris who suffers the most from this decision, because Mama takes her aside and tells her that she – Iris – must be the one to “find” Mama after she has taken the lethal dose of sleeping pills that will end her life. Iris is not at all happy at this news. Not only is she unhappy at being so designated; this also requires a meeting of the minds between herself and her mother, because Mama intends to make Iris duplicitous in her suicide, by alerting her to the fact ahead of time.
Bernice, having laid all this out, is now at peace with her own demise. Not so much her children. Sara, who is the most volatile of the three, is still very much devastated by her mother’s announcements. She copes by refusing to dwell on them at all, by which we mean she proceeds to ignore them. Peter, who seems to be the least affected of the three, may very well be upset at his mother’s decisions, but we cannot tell, because he seems to have taken both decrees in stride. But Iris, who is the most affected, tells us of her own thoughts concerning Mama’s decisions, and details for us the conversation she must have with Mom in order to be able to “find” her mother once she is gone.
Bernice is performed by Janice Laurore, who balanced Bernice’s peace about her decision with stay close to her children. Bernice has several family meetings and throws many evening get-togethers for her children and her friends, using these evenings to tell everyone goodbye. This ultra-present condition is what makes Bernice the very strong pull on the family that causes Iris to refer to her as having a Gravitational Pull on her children.
Sara is performed by J. Ra'Chel Fowler in a tizzy of a performance that pits sisters against each other more than once. Fowler had the conniption down pat; her absolutely losing it once Mama announces her illness was monumental, justifying the other family members’ comments on her complete breakdown at the news. Mama has long ago learned that, of the three, Iris is the most levelheaded; thus, it is Iris who will bear the brunt of Mama’s decisions. As the play progresses and Iris continues to describe Bernice’s continued pull on her offspring, Mama emphasizes Iris’ descriptions with her own continued decline into her disease.
Peter, played here by Alex Lewis, seems to be the least affected of all by any of these developments; that places a real conundrum on Lewis, because he must decide whether he really is unaffected, or only seems to be unaffected. From my own observations, I believe he only seemed to be. Lewis did a superb job of letting us see under that imperturbable mask. His character is affected by his mother’s failing health, of course, but he copes by pretending he is not, at least not at all as much as he actually is.
Finally, Rebecca Jackson-Artis played Iris with a panache that set her apart, even in this highly talented foursome. Iris is indeed the most grounded of the three kids, both because we can see as much and because she makes a point of telling us all about it. She is also the most likable, and we are very much on her side when it comes to this familial unit. Jackson-Artis let us see Iris’ thought processes in telling us about life, the cosmos, gravity, and how all these things coalesce around her family. Jackson-Artis was at times breezy, funny, serious, contemplative, and once or twice sarcastic – especially when Iris was describing her elder sister. The one thing Iris never is, however, is sad. Sad is not in her vocabulary unless she is describing another person. Jackson-Artis’ Iris did not allow herself to fall into this particular miasma.
The sum total of these four varied family members is the complete picture of a familial unit. And despite the fact that we are dealing with a terminal illness and suicide, the play does not bog down under these two weighty subjects. This is a family who comes to grips with devastating news without being devastated, and Iris tells us in no uncertain terms that it was Mama who made it so. But when it comes to the pull of gravity, Iris is a “chip off the old block” herself.
The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble continues through Sunday, October 17. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.