Reviewed by Sherrema A. Bower
‘Pack and unpack. What do you think that means?’
-Lisa (Joy Bishop)-
In the spirit of the stage and film productions of Wit (1999), Defending Your Life (1991), and Waiting for Godot (1953) comes a two-person play that looks at themes of death and life and what it is to be human. Clio Cast & Crew (CCC)’s production of Wakey Wakey – written by Will Eno and ably directed by Katie Davis, assistant directed by Daphne Navarre, and produced by Carley Raleigh – features Guy (Alex Vokoun), a man who faces his own mortality. His first words of the production – ‘Is it now? I thought I had more time!’ – are spoken with dramatic flair, as he is sprawled on the floor. Then, Guy takes the viewer on an intimate journey of his life as he awaits death’s coming.
Guy ‘breaks the 4th wall’ by addressing the audience directly. He speaks from a wheelchair and uses humor to round out the edges of his present calamity. Vokoun is masterful in monologue and brings deep emotion and vulnerability to every word shaded by laughter, sadness, incredulity, poignance, wistfulness, regret. A slide show of pictures brings an imaginative aspect – Guy as a baby, a little girl enjoying an ice cream cone, the patients-only cafeteria at the facility where he has received care, a video of horses. He savors and engages with small pleasures – the scent of a favorite snack, the sudden playing of a popular song from a 1980s film, a word game, the chirping of a cricket. He reminisces about standing on a platform among a crowd of people who are awaiting the coming train. As they look towards the dark tunnel in anticipation, he comments on ‘the different faces people can have at the approaching of a highly expected event.’ This seems a comparison of the faces of family and friends he has seen as they visited, or perhaps the different emotions that anyone may experience as they face death. ‘The body is always there, like a little child,’ he says. So very much is written on it, including emotions and memory.
Guy speaks to notecards on which he has captured thoughts about and throughout his life. Where do we all go? Do we eventually end up in the same place and take different routes to arrive? Instead of last words, why not focus on first words? Guy is his own eulogist, and his soliloquy is made up of random yet poetic thoughts, as he thinks and talks to abate the magnetic pull of his coming end.
Nurse Lisa (Joy Bishop) enters the room and offers comfort in her company and ministrations. Vokoun and Bishop have good chemistry together. Lisa soothes Guy as he sleeps and when he awakens, engages him in philosophical conversation about a deceased loved one who came after death and spoke to her the words, ‘Pack and unpack.’ They explore what that might mean. She drinks and offers Guy hibiscus tea. The hibiscus – a short-lived, colorful, scented flower – brings vibrance and vitality in a variety of medicinal forms and carries symbiology in this play. For instance, purple hibiscuses are associated with knowledge, wisdom, and mystery. Hinduism connects the hibiscus with the deities Kali and Lord Ganesha and are believed to take human consciousness to the level of the divine (petalrepublic.com). Thus, Nurse Lisa’s offer of hibiscus tea to Guy seems symbolic of his transition from the physical realm into that of mystery, one life to the next. Although he does not opt to drink, her non-judging presence gives him permission to philosophize and be in his sunset moments.
Tension is this play’s unspoken presence in that one is given to wonder what will happen next. Because it begins with Guy sprawled on the floor, what follows brings a feeling that he is in a space of liminality between life and death; is he still sprawled on the floor in another plane? Is Nurse Lisa also in that liminal space – and therefore, a specter – or does her living presence root him in the physical world? It is left up to the viewer to decide. Guy’s soliloquy is punctuated by occasional memories that bring a faraway, emotive look, but not for long as he snaps back to attention. One wonders if that brief memory will reassert itself another way, such as in the form of someone from long ago knocking at the door. Vokoun’s relative youth brings another layer of tension as the viewer cannot help but surmise what has brought Death to stand beside Guy before his time. Still, Guy is unencumbered by age because he engages existential questions with the fortitude of an old soul.
The set is minimalist, a small living space semi-strewn with packed boxes symbolic of Guy’s life possessions, the material and spiritual, the clutter we carry. A modest TV depicts pictures, videos, and word games while sitting atop a small bookshelf that holds pictures and board games. Costuming is appropriate for a patient in hospice who is under a nurse’s care – Guy wears a t-shirt, pajama pants, and robe while sitting in his wheelchair. Nurse Lisa wears a white jacket and khaki pants. They are casual, as there is no place to go and nothing to do but await an impending end.
In an after-show interview, Vokoun said that he utilized multiple memorization tricks to learn the script, since his monologue carries the greater part of the play. He said that he found the character quite relatable, as he has been a caregiver for people who were at the end of life. These experiences gave him an ability to draw from and bring depth of perception about what it means to face Death. Bishop reflected on her inspiration for the play and with tears welling, shared that she recently entered her sixth decade of life and recognizes that she may have less years ahead than she did at the beginning or even at midlife. This realization allowed her to relate to the character of Guy more poignantly and brought depth to her role as his nurse. [Reviewer’s note:]My friend, who accompanied me, had lost a loved one that very day and shared that she could relate to the themes of this production about what it means to live one’s life well and face their end with courage.
Guy’s reminiscences of the material world and his mortality are enhanced in sensory ways by the stage crew, including Ryan Filpansick (Stage Manager), Rick Doll (Set Designer), Melanie Taylor (lighting), and Morgan Stevens (sound). Their skills are evident in carrying and transitioning the acting and storyline.
In summary, as the moon’s pull brings about the turning of tides, so life’s seasons bring an ebb and flow. There are two halves to one’s life – the half they lived before seeing this play and the half after. Though finite, life is also infinite and the precious, harmonious moments one shares with Guy, as portrayed by Alex Vokoun, while he considers his life may transition them to ponder their own and act on their dreams.
This show runs only tonight at 7:30 and Sunday at 2:30 – 2220 W. Vienna Road, Clio, MI