Even by the high standards of the Gloucester Stage Company, one of America’s most respected venues for new dramatic works, “Flight of the Monarch” has made an astonishing first impression. This new work, penned by Jim Frangione and directed by GSC Managing Director Jeff Zinn, and featuring just two actors, Nancy E. Carroll (Sheila) and J. Tucker Smith (Thomas), hits the stage as a fully formed and incisive examination of a question that every person asks themselves at some point in their lives: “What do I have to live for?”
The premise, like many great dramas, is simple: The lights come up on Sheila, a woman of advanced age, who is lying in a hospital bed. But she’s not passive; she’s on the phone, arguing with her sister. Defiant in her confinement, she just wants to get on with her life. Her younger brother Thomas, who has been dozing in a visitor’s chair, wakes up, and the siblings waste no time in exposing the family’s secrets. As the layers are ripped aside, we quickly learn that under Shiela’s fiesty exterior she’s losing faith in herself. She feels only the crushing weight of what she believes has been a lifetime marked by failure.
In crafting the peppery dialogue, playwright Jim Frangione, himself a working actor, thankfully avoids the temptation to be clever. Sheila and Thomas feel like people we know, and it’s easy to forget that we’re not hearing transcripts of actual conversations. Frangione’s ear for dialogue is spot-on and the plot elements are true to life. Yes, there are plenty of laughs in this drama, but none are forced, and they come from the heart, not from a playwright seeking to pander to his audience.
The direction by Jeff Zinn is what it should be: invisible to the audience. “Flight of the Monarch” unfolds with such ease and naturalism that we forget we’re watching a consciously crafted presentation. As the actors verbally attack, retreat, and make peace – often with the span of a few seconds – we stay with them, never feeling as though we’re seeing anything other than real people with real problems.
Gloucester Stage Company veteran and Rockport resident Nancy E. Carroll and GSC newcomer J. Tucker Smith carry the production with nary a misstep. They deliver astonishing performances that resonate with real passion, dreams, and regrets. They never reach for cheap laughs, which goes a long way toward building and maintaining their credibility with the audience. When they express their deepest emotions, we believe them.
The set by Cristina Todesco supports the actors and the story. When the lights come up on the second act, which is set in Sheila’s living room, you’ll swear you’ve been there before – every casually placed tchotchke evokes the kind of run-down middle-class Cape that could use a really good cleaning. The lights, costume, and sound design all contribute to the authenticity of the setting.
“Flight of the Monarch” is a poignant and astonishing family drama that aims for the heart and doesn’t miss. Congratulations to the Gloucester Stage Company for presenting this newly created jewel. See it before it triumphs in New York! Onstage now through September 30. For tickets – while they last! – visit gloucesterstage.com or call 978-281-4433.
- Thomas Hauck is a professional ghostwriter and book editor…. and occasional theater reviewer!