Two decades ago, Jerre Dye was dining at the dark, bookish Charlie Brown’s restaurant while visiting friends in Lexington when he overheard familiar strains of theater-industry conversations at a nearby table.
“We were like, ‘These are theater people!’” Dye said. “So we walked over and said, ‘Are you theater people?’”
In fact, one of those theater people was a 20-something Bo List, who is now the artistic director at AthensWest Theatre, where Jerre Dye is directing Philip Dawkins’ whimsical comedy “Failure: A Love Story.”
“We just hung out and talked like all night long,” Dye says of their first chance meeting.
“He and his small group immediately recognized our group as loud and obnoxious theater people,” List says. “We immediately started talking ... and they invited us to a party they were going to. It was one of those great moments where we realized what we had in common and had a great time together.”
List’s trajectory took him to graduate school in Memphis, where Dye spent years working as the artistic director of Voices of the South Theatre Company. Their paths crossed again in Chicago, where Dye now works as an actor, writer, and director. He also has carved a niche as an opera librettist.
When List was living in Chicago in the early 2000s, he also became acquainted with Dawkins.
“He was starting his playwriting career and was on the outskirts of my friends,” List says. “I followed his successes on Facebook, and he’s just done better and better.”
List produced one of his plays for middle schoolers — “Einstein’s Brains” — for his students at Sayre School (where List is an instructor ), and when it came time to choose plays for AthensWest’s 2017-18 season, he wanted to introduce Dawkins’ unique style to local audiences.
“He has a distinctly whimsical sense of humor,” List says. “Even in his dramatic moments, he has a sense of whimsy and mirth, even when things are melancholy.”
It is hard to imagine whimsy when you read the description of the play: A man falls in love with three sisters, each of whom die in succession.
And yet, Dawkins’ writing is hailed as “buoyant” by the L.A. Times.
“I can’t tell if it’s a sad comedy or a funny tragedy, but we know very early on in the play that there’s a man named Mortimer Mortimer and he will fall in love with each of the Fail sisters,” List says. “He falls in love with each and they all die; yet we’re to laugh the whole time. There’s talking dogs and clocks and snakes and birds. The rules of our reality don’t apply.”
Washington Post critic Celia Wren wrote, “You have to admire Dawkins’s determination to tackle age-old themes — mortality, loss, love — in an unusual, monk-parakeet-bedecked manner.”
Curiously, the version of the show Wren reviewed is likely to be entirely different from the one Lexington audiences will see, and not just because of the usual differences of casting, directorial vision and resources. In fact, every production of “Failure: A Love Story” is likely to be wildly different because of extraordinary freedoms Dawkins builds into the play’s opening stage directions, encouraging producers to take enormous creative license in tailoring the work to their audience.
“It is possible to tell this story with as few as four actors and as many as fifty. So have fun,” Dawkins’ stage directions say, after listing several appropriately whimsical ways for directors to shape the story.
When AthensWest leaders were deciding who should direct such a unique show, they immediately thought of Dye.
“He seemed like the perfect fit,” List says.
Dye says he has enjoyed working in Lexington, which he calls a “gem of a city” that connects him with his own Southern roots as a Mississippi native and a former longtime Tennessee resident.
“It has a distinct flavor that I find warming,” Dye says of Lexington. “The people are so warm and available. And it’s beautiful.”
Dye also was impressed by Lexington’s talent pool when he held auditions in the fall.
“It was just like waves of talent into the room,” Dye says. “So, clearly, I feel very lucky about what I stepped into.
“This has truly been one of the most effortless and joyful rehearsal processes I’ve ever had. This is not hyperbole. It’s been a complete joy.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If you go
‘Failure: A Love Story’
What: AthensWest Theatre Company’s production of Philip Dawkins’ play
When: Feb. 3-19; 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $25 general public, $20 senior adults, military and students.