The secret is I’m dead. Very, very, very dead.”
No one but Gillian, the title character in Michael Brady’s “To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday,” could speak those words with more resounding authority. After all, she’s been dead two years when the play begins, having died in a boating accident on her 35th birthday. Returning now as a ghost, she must die once again (in the world of the play) to jolt her surviving husband David out of his funk and back to a meaningful life.
Sound eerie? Not as mounted in its current production by the Ridge Repertory Company at the Bay Ridge Jewish Center. Gillian, as played by A’ndrea Blake, is a full-blooded ghost, onstage with upswept blonde hair and a full, curvy figure. And David, aptly played by Fred Milani, is the portrait of a faithful husband, looking at Gillian with the unblinking eyes of a spaniel. Both actors are willing to take bold chances here, and plunge into their roles where the natural and supernatural fuse seamlessly together.
This is a heaven-sent assignment for director James Martinelli, who succeeds in injecting it with fresh life and verve.
The miraculous thing about this incarnation at the Bay Ridge Jewish Center is that Brady’s 1983 play still holds up. In spite of the fact that some of its references to popular culture might not chime with the younger generation (Ann Landers, anybody?), the play’s strength is its sympathetic characters. These characters are viable; people you could meet in real life and care about.
Because the plot involves frequent visits from Gillian, there’s a will-o-the-wisp quality to its unfolding action. In fact, the plot is peppered with many verbal circumlocutions, flashbacks (to the boating accident), and seeming non-sequiturs. But make no mistake, this author knows his dramatic terrain; this is a well-crafted play and no scene is accidental.
Even so, I feared that the cast wouldn’t be up to the psychological nuances of its parts. Not to worry, Milani’s David seemed anchored in his role from the get-go and Blake as Gillian had no vacuous apparition or stage gimmick; indeed Blake’s Gillian nicely registered the sea changes of her personality from has-been wife to first-rate ghost. She insinuates, rather than imposes herself, into her scenes. In fact, her character becomes like that proverbial onion, unpeeling the layers of her personality to the core, and then literally vanishing into thin air in her final scene. Blake’s character possesses the quintessential magic of the play, and she rises to the dramatic moment time and again in refreshing ways.
Don’t expect to see a high-tech set here, although the lighting design by Elliot Lanes brings just enough radiance to the romantic scenes, and deftly tones down the quieter moments in the play. The entire set has been culled from the attics and basements of the Bay Ridge community. (In fact, the audience member sitting directly in front of me declared that the genuine wood frame window on stage was from his Maine home.) While some sets insist you notice their special effects, this innovative one invites you to accept its homespun value.
I admit to enjoying this play more than I expected. It was a no-frills production on a shoestring budget, but the exuberance of the cast under Martinelli’s unswerving direction made the show spring to life. After spending two hours with these characters, I dare anybody not to take them to heart.
“To Gillian on her 37th Birthday” will be performed at 5 pm on Oct. 20, 21 and 28 at the Bay Ridge Jewish Center (405 81st St. at Fourth Avenue in Bay Ridge). Tickets are $18. For information, call (718) 836-3103.
©2007 Community News Group
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