Bridge Players’ EXIT DATE Makes a Fine Entrance

by Jack Shaw

“What would you do if you learned the date of your death, or should I say, if you came to believe that you had that information? Would it change the way you live your life? Would it affect your relationships with those you love? Would it shake your faith? Would it empower you to take on the world, or would it frighten you into immobility?” What if you and some friends decided to pop in on a local psychic and end up asking her “when will I die–when’s my exit date?” The rest of the story is to be found in Bridge Players Theatre Company’s fine production of Philadelphia playwright Nancy Frick’s comedy-drama, EXIT DATE.

One of the things I liked about this play was the writer’s natural word play. The actors didn’t seem to be acting at all, but rather seemed to be living on stage–an important point–as the characters are dying–maybe, or just reacting to knowing their respective “exit dates.”

Would knowing when you will die change you? Would you do something different with your life–if you knew? Those are just a couple of pithier questions asked by this play, and the outcome is dramatic, sometimes funny, as the characters cope with the truly unwanted knowledge, discovering who they are and what they need from life.

It’s not often that a reviewer goes to a show, and gets to ask the playwright, “Well, did the theatre company do justice to your work?” I saw Bridge Players Theatre Company’s opening night for EXIT DATE, met local Philadelphia playwright, Nancy Frick, and asked her that very question. (Be sure to check out STAGE News Reporter Jim Hilgen’s video interview with the playwright here….) httpv://

Ms. Frick acknowledged they did do the piece justice, and I agree. Well, if she says they met her expectations, my job is finished. Sort of.

That generally says it all for a production, but not quite.

Perspective and commentary are also my responsibility. I believe a director’s first goal should be to be true to what the playwright intended, ensuring his or her message comes across as dramatically as possible. Then, if the director’s vision adds important emphasis–that’s even better. As a reviewer, I won’t nitpick unless I feel it affects the performance as a whole. You know what I mean, “this scene change was too long or too loud,” for example.

However, there were some standout performances. Valerie Mazzagatti as “Kay Adams” was terrific, but I have to say I liked her better when she was in a scene more than standing and delivering a monologue; I like the more natural feel. Dan Brothers, who was totally believable as “Marshall Adams,” found times to be funny as well as real. I was impressed by Alice Weber whose charming performance as the serious psychic, “Madame Carla,” was made complete with a very authentic-sounding gypsy accent.

The director added a few interesting touches not in the play, for example, the ominous music between scenes and flashed the dates above the stage to let the audience see the dates as time keeps moving. It added an element of comedy as it reminded you of a horror film, where people die–horribly, of course. Or, a spoof of a horror film. Or, if you are the more sensitive type, it just reminded you of how the characters or you might be feeling inside.

Some very fine performances, creative sound production and a deft directing hand highlighted this production. I might have had other ideas for presenting this play as a director, and maybe one day I’ll have the pleasure. For now, as the reviewer, I ask if this production helped her words live on the stage and settle in our hearts and minds. The Bridge Players seemed to have accomplished that.

Dan Brothers, Valerie Mazzagatti, Kathy Harmer, Tim Petrillo in a scene from EXIT DATE running at Bridge Players Theatre Company in Burlington NJ through May 21.

A locally written play is rarely produced locally; most theaters are willing to produce a local play only after it has proven itself elsewhere. There’s no question that budgets are tight and audiences slim at times, so an unknown work is a risk few theaters are willing to make. But once in awhile a play comes along a theater can’t ignore. This is THAT play. I am anxious to see it produced again and again as much for the playwright as for the art.

Not only is it tough to get an original play produced, but death is a touchy subject to take on. We don’t like to admit we are all going to die. We know it. We simply don’t like talking about it until it hits us with a frontal assault. If it hits us from behind, that’s better; we didn’t know it was coming. Knowing it’s coming means we have to deal with it.

Accept death? It is inevitable for all of us. But maybe Frick is saying “acceptance” is the hardest stage to realize if you don’t believe in something bigger than you. The other four stages of dying–denial, anger, bargaining and depression–are defense mechanisms that hinder our acceptance, depending on our character (the one in us, not on stage). Shouldn’t we make the time we have left precious instead of crying over how much time we wasted in blissful ignorance?

Death is rarely a funny circumstance, except in Black Comedy (the theatre genre, not the play by that name). Here, Nancy Frick handles the subject with dignity, intelligence and wit. She takes “middle view,” she says and let’s her characters work things out as we all do, as all humans do–with varied responses based on who we are or how we cope with life’s surprises.

Interestingly enough, just knowing when you will die makes you question what life itself is all about. “The sophomoric questions of the universe,” as Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., said in Sirens of Titan, are those that try to answer the questions of “why are we all here and what is our purpose.” The questions may be “sophomoric” because we don’t treat them as very important questions, and they really are important to gauge how honestly and fully we live our lives.

These are all good questions. This is a brave theater’s production of a good play. Come see for yourself.

By the way, I had the chance to ask the playwright, Nancy Frick, how she came to write EXIT DATE. I’m afraid her answer will have to wait until tomorrow when I can add a post to Acting Smarts on the subject of playwriting. A man has to sleep sometime. “To sleep, perchance to dream…” and not die, not yet.

by Nancy Frick
Directed by Bob Beaucheane
May 6-21, 2011
Broad St. Methodist Church
36 E. Broad Street
Burlington, NJ 08016

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