From the beginning we know the relationship is doomed to fail. The couple is at odds right off the bat. Jamie is an overzealous up-and-coming writer at the beginning of his career, while Cathy is already “still hurting.” The stark juxtaposition makes you wonder how these two ever got along.
Using an unconventional storytelling method, the play follows the couple in and out of love over the course of five years; Jamie’s side of the story told chronologically, and Cathy’s story works backwards in time. They meet in the middle for their wedding.
Mankato Playhouse’s production of The Last Five Years opened on Oct. 9 and will be showing until Oct. 25. Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown, the play premiered in 2001 and enjoyed off-Broadway revivals in 2013 as well as a 2014 film adaptation. The Mankato version was directed by David Holmes, who also stars as Jamie. He and his co-star, Anastacia Wells Steinberg, needed range and stamina to pull this off.
The play was described as “intimate,” and this production delivered. For most of the production, it’s one person on stage and minimal props and setting. Due to the non-linear storytelling method, the two actors rarely share the stage. The actors must fill up that bare space with what they feel for the other: admiration, fondness, loneliness, even rage. It’s a tall order, cramming five years’ worth of relationship ups and downs into mostly solo performances. Mankato Playhouse was up for the task.
It’s a tall order, cramming five years’ worth of relationship ups and downs into mostly solo performances. Mankato Playhouse was up for the task.
David Holmes, who portrays Jamie, manages to show the many sides of the same man, all the way from a humble and earnest 23-year-old, through career highs, and into the collapse of his marriage. While he ages on stage, his castmate becomes younger and more hopeful. Anastacia Well Steinberg, who plays Cathy, hits impressive notes and manages to layer subtle emotions into each phrase. The acting is simply great.
Each song is more than what is written on the page. Words take on new meanings as the actors repeat them and examine their own emotions live. Cathy’s repeated verse, “I’m a part of that,” reflects her increasingly questioned faith in Jamie, and when Jamie says, “We’re fine,” it’s clear he’s trying to convince himself more than anyone. Besides the vast range of emotion and character development on stage, it’s also just impressive to realize how long these two have been belting it out on stage. It’s a lot of work to sing that well and that hard for that duration. The story demands actors with great range and stamina; Steinberg and Holmes delivered incredibly.
The third actor
While there are only two cast members on stage, the Orchestra qualifies as the third, off-stage but ever present and vital. Noah Wilson, pianist and music director, keeps the audience on track with the ever-shifting mood of the couple. The Orchestra fills in the gaps of what is not stated on stage, and the music is everything from exuberant and bright at love-struck highs to brooding or livid at out-of-love lows. As with many relationships, what isn’t said can be just as poignant. The Orchestra fills the gaps that would otherwise confuse.
The risk of non-linear storytelling is that the audience can get confused. For anyone without an understanding of the play structure, the first few songs could be hard to follow. Why is she so upset? Why is he so happy? The audience might feel lost if they didn’t read ahead about the non-linear storytelling method. But then again, this is about a couple that loses their way. Perhaps it’s right that we all endure a little confusion. By song three, I think most viewers will understand.
If you want a feel-good show, this isn’t it. This play is an investigation of why things go wrong.
Since none of the drama plays out onstage, and the only conversations we hear are one-sided, the causes for love and war are mostly implied. This takes away from our traditional understanding of drama. Usually it takes two to tango. But by separating the one love story into two separate sides, we are pushed to empathize with, and at times blame, both parties. There are heartwarming moments, a few laughs, but also the tension of a couple at war. If you want a feel-good show, this isn’t it. This play is an investigation of why things go wrong.
Also due to the unconventional method, the mood changes quickly. It can be jarring to see a love song turn into a fight so quickly. But sometimes that is how it feels in real life. When two people try to tell the same story, mistakes get made. At one point, the character Jamie realizes, “I wrote a story, and we changed the ending.”
Worth the journey
Despite the tension and potential confusion, The Last Five Years leaves the audience with a strange, lovely, nostalgic sensation. The couple was doomed to fail, but, then again, so are many relationships. If you knew how your relationship would end, would that keep you from falling in love? The human answer is no. The lighting is lovely, the special effects rain bubbles, and there’s nothing like listening to a top-notch orchestra live.
If you’ve ever been in love, in The Last Five Years, you’ll see yourself on stage – hopefully, in a good light.
The Last Five Years is showing at the Mankato Playhouse from October 9-25. Shows include Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday matinees. Meals catered by Absolute Catering and show-only tickets are also available. For more information or to get tickets, visit mankatoplayhouse.com.