Everybody in the history of the universe has heard of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey. That’s because everybody in the history of the universe is in the 1927 novel on our proximity to each other, centering around a fatal Peruvian bridge collapse and a friar’s exhaustive efforts to unravel the victims’ cosmic interrelationship.
“Is there a direction and meaning in lives beyond the individual’s own will?” the book asks, steadfastly refusing to divulge the answer.
Unless you like being happy and sad at the same time, don’t bother renting the movie (it’s worse than you think, and you haven’t even seen it). This Random World, a Steven Dietz entry currently running at North Coast Repertory Theatre, is a perfectly acceptable substitute, eschewing Wilder’s typically preachy MO in favor of a mild, almost cozy look at the phenomenon of chance and its effect on life’s much, much bigger picture.
While it too touches on farflung locales, it consigns them to the backdrop as Dietz closes in on the blueprints that constitute the characters’ natures. Meanwhile, director David Ellenstein has done an excellent job casting to type and shading the roles amid the characters’ illustration of self-imposed limitation.
After all, everybody in the history of the universe is his/her own best example of wholesale neglect. As Dietz has said, “We can see other people’s missed opportunities. We can rarely see our own.”
However belatedly, Scottie Ward concurs. The hidebound sixtysomething was so convinced of her own certitude in life that her newfound sense of doubt has festered into her only regret. Her daughter Beth is busy writing her own obit and trying to figure out her precise time of death; son Tim can’t hold a job and just lost a girlfriend — and both of them lament the fact that Scottie’s listlessness has somehow visited them.
All the show’s characters are pining for suitable life paths that will bring their messy existences into focus and that find some of them in extended reaches such as Nepal and Japan.
The key to the story is that, while the characters’ lives intertwine amid their travels, they see each other as strangers, missing what’s unique about their individual selves. The characters are the last to acknowledge what they’ve missed in life amid their own self-involvement — and in the end, Dietz leaves the barest hint that Scottie might stand a chance at redemption.
The coolest thing is that all these people are thoroughly well-meaning individuals. Beth may be a ditzoid, but her heart’s in basically the right place, and Dietz has drawn everybody in the same general light, although each character’s level of grace is widely disparate (while high-strung Tim is merely exasperated at his circumstance, headstrong subtextual character Gary comes dangerously close to taking life into his own hands). Within those extremes steps Ellenstein, who’s coaxed precisely the right naivete from each persona as Dietz keeps the introductions upbeat yet noncommittal.
Anne Gee Byrd’s Scottie is an excellent absentee mom of a sort, fueling her children’s freedom of life choices while steadfastly denying it to herself. And watch the chemistry between Lisel Lorell-Getz’s Beth and Kevin Hafso Koppman’s Tim — brother-sister love-hate is all too apparent here, with each player’s frenetic voice the ideal definitional tool. I found Ava Hill’s Rhonda a superfluous character in light of Yolanda Franklin’s turn as Scottie’s assistant Bernadette, but both players are interactive and self-assured.
Subtext characters Gary (Patrick Zeller) and Claire (Diana Irvine), who self-proclaimedly sucks at life, spend a lot of time looking over their shoulders. Both players are histrionically well-endowed.
Marty Burnett’s set design and Matt Novotny’s lights work exceedingly well together, stoking one another as they let the story tell itself.
Wilder lived most of his youth in China and came away with bedrock, vaguely harsh formulas for societal conduct, most of which he was all too pleased to share through San Luis Rey and plays like Our Town and The Skin of Our Teeth. Dietz also lets fly with his own social commentary through his 30-some scripts — the difference is in his lighthandedness in the face of otherwise complex and foreboding thought about our potential for enlightenment.
Of course there’s meaning in life within its incalculable forces at work — and this fine turn is a highly user-friendly, compelling case in point.
This review is based on the matinee performance of Feb. 25. This Random World runs through March 18 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach. $44.00-$49.00. 858-481-1055, northcoastrep.org.