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William Shakespeare pretty well nailed it when he had Hamlet speak the line, "There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." With that in mind, I would like to pose a question to you, dear reader: do you believe in reincarnation? Your answer to that question might depend on whether or not you see the latest production on stage at The ArtsCenter, Full Nelson Theater's Carolyn Adams.
Full Nelson is the collaboration between local playwrights Paul Newell and Mark Cornell. Past works they have performed include The Devil and Mark Twain, Dawn's Early Light, and Life As We Know It. This current production, Carolyn Adams, is one of Cornell's works; he performs double-duty, as he is the light-and-sound man for the show, as well. Cornell has 75 plays to his credit, including one called Desert Song, which will receive a reading in the ArtsCenter's West End on January 18.
Nancy Lane directs Carolyn Adams, which sports a cast of six. It is set in the back room of a sporting goods store in Small Town, USA, where the owners of the place have invited some friends over to watch the football game between the Jets and the Falcons. The store is run by John (Mark Jantzen) and Tom (Paul Newell). As the curtain goes up, John is trying to inventory new stock as his part-time assistant, Matt (Ryan McDaniel) brings it in. There is much cussing. Apparently John, a veteran of three failed marriages, is known for it; it certainly doesn’t phase Matt at all. Arriving in short order are friend Kevin (Evit Emerson), whose off-the-cuff style of betting has placed him at the top of the chain this week, and Tom, just back from the local Safeway. Two guests still to arrive have only just been invited by Tom. They are Cooper (Will Pierson), John’s grandson, who has just gotten back from college to visit his mom, and Coop’s girlfriend, Grace (Gwyneth Benitez-Graham). Tom met them in the Safeway and invited them over, because he wants John to meet Grace. It’s important.
Tom comes in visibly shaken. When John questions him, he hesitantly reports that Grace is the double for a girl both Tom and John knew in high school, Carolyn Adams. Adams lived next door to John, and the two were best friends. In fact, during the course of the show, John actually admits that he loved her. But he never got the chance to tell her, because she died in a one-car accident coming home from a Homecoming dance. That was fifty years ago. In fact, tonight is the anniversary of the accident.
When Cooper and Grace arrive, John is shocked to find that Grace is everything Tom described and more. She looks like Carolyn, talks like her, laughs like her, and she even has a birthmark on her neck that is shaped exactly like the one Carolyn had on her neck. The impact of all this is too much for John; he faints.
Once John is revived, he sits Carolyn down and queries her: Does she recognize this town? Has anything unusual happened to her while she has been here? Does she have any strange things happen to her? Any déjà vu? Does she have strange dreams? This last question is the only one that elicits a "yes" response. Grace then relates to the men a recurring dream she has; it is enough to stagger both Tom and John. It sounds as though it would be the exact thing that happened to Carolyn the night she died. Grace says she is driving a car on a country road at night, and it's raining. She's having trouble seeing because she is crying, having just had her heart broken. She is driving home because she knows someone at home who is safe, someone to whom she can talk. She says she tries to steer into a curve, but the wheel is locked and she can't turn it. The car goes off the road, crashes, and catches fire. Grace says she is waiting for someone to come and save her, but no one comes. Then she wakes up.
By the end of this report, Tom is way over stage left, with his back to everyone. He is in torment. John does something that everyone thinks is crazy. He tells Grace that she should not worry about it, it's just a dream, and it doesn't mean anything. He tells her they are all being silly, and she should not think anything more about it. She should live her life, and be herself, and not worry anything more about this silly coincidence. It doesn’t mean anything. Cooper and Grace say their goodnights and leave. Immediately, everyone turns to John. Is he nuts? Does he know what he just did? Kevin says this was the perfect time for John to tell Carolyn how he felt about her. John says no. Grace is a wholly separate person, and she deserves to live her life away from this town and this ghost. But Tom still hasn't told John about his role in all this.
Tom is a recovering alcoholic. His mother was, also. But Tom has always been haunted by Carolyn's death, because he feels he is responsible. He's the one who broke her heart. At the dance, Carolyn told him she was in love with him, but he was too immature to deal with it, and he denied her. She grabbed the keys to her parents' car and left. She died minutes later. Tom is horrified and guilt-ridden by all of what he has heard tonight; it confirms everything he has felt since the accident. John feels just as guilty. Had he gone to the dance, Carolyn wouldn't have been racing home to him, and she wouldn't have died. John and Tom begin arguing over it and end by yelling at each other that "I'm responsible! No, I'm responsible!" It cracks their buddies up, and the tension is broken. John, much the way he assured Grace, tells Tom that it is over, and both of them need to let it go.
This is a potent play, well-presented by these local and talented actors. Jantzen's John is a complex man, but he is also a man who is down-to-earth and not given to flights of fancy. He believes all this business about reincarnation is a bunch of rot, and it cannot and should not affect any of them, even so much as it already has. He convinces Tom that they should both forget about it. It's time to forgive themselves, and get on with their lives.
Newell's Tom is a man who feels such guilt that it has exacerbated his illness. But John seems to get through to Tom; he agrees it's time to let Carolyn go. McDaniel's Matt is sort of the dark horse of this play; his role is to observe and comment. He even brings up a title of an old movie, The Reincarnation of Peter Proud. (I read the book, written in 1973. Those of us familiar with the title remember how strangely real and eerie it was.) Emerson's Kevin is highly affected by all of this; he's the one who wonders why John let such a golden opportunity pass him by.
Cornell seems to grasp the eeriness and the predilection to the notion of reincarnation. Whether or not one actually believes in such a thing, this play haunts the viewer. Could such a thing actually have happened? The question raises its head from time to time, despite a general pooh-poohing of the notion. It is not a question anyone is going to be able to answer anytime soon, but still, the idea is a seductive one. Wouldn't it be nice if we had a second chance to live our lives, and get to correct what we got so wrong the first time? It intrigues me, this notion of rebirth. Is it possible that, somewhere in that 90% of our brains that we never seem to access, the question of reincarnation is actually answered? If this intrigues you, as well, then I would make plans to see Carolyn Adams. She might just have some surprises for you.
Carolyn Adams continues through Sunday, November 10. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.