In AthensWest Theatre Co.’s new production, “Failure: A Love Story,” playwright Philip Dawkins begins by telling the audience which three main characters are going to die, in what order, and even how they meet their demise. Going from youngest to oldest, each of the three Fail sisters meet a watery demise.
What Dawkins does not explain out of the gate is how and why the protagonist, Mortimer Mortimer, falls in love with each of the Fail sisters.
That is a story for the ensemble cast to share with the audience in a lithe and mirthful production about hope and heartbreak, and how to find meaning and connection in loss.
Funny and sad, sad and funny, the show straddles the line between comedy and tragedy without showing any strain to be one or the other. Both exist in marvelously imagined tandem, thanks to Chicago-based director Jerre Dye’s playful eye and nuanced vision that drives home the show’s dominant message: Just because something ends doesn’t mean it wasn’t a great success. First uttered by a dying dog, the line later becomes a refrain to help Mortimer and John N. (the lone Fail brother) process the loss of the beloved Fail sisters and, more broadly, a way to approach life itself.
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Dye brings a charmingly offbeat intensity of imagination and movement to his vision that brings out the whimsy, wonder and bewildering pain of Dawkins’ malleable script, which invites directors to cast as many or as few actors in the ensemble as they like.
For this show, Dye chose seven actors to share the the play’s narration duties while portraying not only their primary characters but a variety of non-human characters, like clocks, snakes, birds and gramophones.
The ensemble proves to be up to the task and more. Sharp timing, a continual flow of movement and innovative blocking and staging, plus acting with an affected narrative style that would be at home in the play’s 1928 setting are all challenges that the cast meets with aplomb.
Mark Mozingo’s charming-yet-tragic plight as perpetual Fail love interest Mortimer Mortimer (whose very name means death) is the vehicle for the show’s emotional highs and lows. Poor John N, played by Sebastian Midence, is mostly familiar with the lows. An adopted member of the Fail family, his shyness is more suited for relationships with animals than humans. Midence brings an impressive combination of loneliness and despair balanced by a quiet hopefulness to the role that is a powerful contrast to the joie de vivre radiating from his sisters.
Alexis Robinson, Gabrielle Miller and Rachel Lee Rogers deliver brightly stylized comedic performances as Nello, Jenny June and Gertie Fail, respectively. The trio’s crisp sense of comic timing keeps the pace moving at a satisfying clip.
Marianne Miller and Shayne Brakefield play the equally ill-fated Fail parents, as well as a suite of secondary characters who populate the clock shop owned by the Fail family. These characters offer some of the play’s most humorous moments, such as Brakefield’s sternly comic portrayal of a wizened grandfather clock.
Matthew Hallock’s scenic and lighting design coyly plays with the constructs of time and place, and provides a lush, deconstructed backdrop for a show in which time is of the essence in more ways than one.
A kaleidoscope of wonder amid sorrow (or sorrow amid wonder), “Failure: A Love Story” is an artistic coup for AthensWest and a one-of-a-kind night at the theater.
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
“Failure: A Love Story”
What: AthensWest Theatre Company’s production of Philip Dawkins’ play
When: Through Feb. 19; 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 2 p.m. Sun.
Where: Downtown Arts Center, 141 E. Main St.
Tickets: $25 general public, $20 seniors, military and students.