Pardon me if tour de force seems too lame a phrase for Jennifer Childsand the new show she’s written, “I Will Not Go Gently.” Titled after poet Dylan Thomas’ iconic refrain, her show is a broad portrait of aging — the grace of it, the denial of it, the haughtiness that comes from those too young to understand it. It could only have been written by someone with the seasoning to explore aging’s many facets. It could only be performed by someone who can move gamely through disparate characters from various parts of the life cycle.
Childs, the artistic leader of 1812 Productions, has created the sort of show that fools you, a theatrical trompe l’oeil.About halfway through its 90 minutes, you realize that the characters you’ve been laughing at are funny only on the surface. Without addressing it head-on, each is making an oblique declaration about aging — and “I Will Not Go Gently” is different and deeper than it seems.
Although she never says it, for instance, a character called Sierra Mist – a former British rock star — needs a comeback because there’s still time left to prove to that she can come back. The insomniac in her 40s who podcasts live in the middle of the night? When she was younger, life was too full to go to sleep. The grandmom who’s already had a great run isn’t afraid to conquer something new. Could it be that she’s too old to fail, or care, and that her age offers her liberation?
More characters appear in Childs’ carefully plotted renditions, smartly staged and with smooth kinetic transitions by veteran director Harriet Power, on Lance Kniskern’s set of large rounded steps that jut like the side-view of a DNA double helix. A teenage middle-schooler who cannot understand her mother, or her mother’s entire generation, talks and texts at once with four (or is it five? I lost count) friends while doing (or cheating on) her homework. A college reunion brings together different women with varied takes on their shared past and their present realities. One of my favorite characters is Dyna-Woman, a PBS-type self-improvement guru. She’s been the victim of age discrimination, a lemon that she’s turning into lemonade. (Jorge Cousineau’s video design makes her even funnier.)
Clearly readable characters are Childs’ strong suit, built over years of performing and creating work here. Among them are the stoop-sitting South Philly lady who is, de facto, the neighborhood mayor; the mom who’s trying to understand why she can’t dance and never could; the suburban hostess who — expressed totally through dance — loses control of her house party.
They’re all fun and each makes a point in Childs’ charming performances. But “I Will Not Go Gently” marks a high point for her. You can’t plumb the show’s depth by simply enjoying each character. Childs leaves it to you to tie together the ideas she’s offering and then compare them with your own sense of what aging means — and she supplies plenty of thread for the tying.
Along with her terrific performance in the same style of a medley of characters performed decades ago by Lily Tomlin or Whoopi Goldberg, the most striking quality of “I Will Not Go Gently,” is its subtext. Plus, it’s also a big show, a high-quality production with some original music by Christopher Colucci and lyrics by Childs, lighting by Shelley Hicklin, and Rosemarie McKelvey’s costumes for quick character changes. Presenting comedy is the mission of 1812 Productions, and has been now for 19 years. Which, the eloquent “I Will Not Go Gently” proves, can be serious business indeed.
_“I Will Not Go Gently,” from 1812 Productions, runs through May 15 at Plays & Players Theatre, Delancey Street between 17th and 18th Streets. 215-592-9560 or www.1812productions.org.