Sunday, March 26, 2017

"Everything That's Beautiful"

Everything’s That’s Beautiful
Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder

Mattea Fountain as Morgan
Something happens unexpected, unplanned, unwanted.  Change.  Immediately, the surrounding system is in transition – neither in the state of what was once nor in the state of what might someday be.  Emotions follow rollercoaster tracks.  Communication falters.  Hearing is difficult; listening is impossible.  Just when it begins to feel better, it is not; and the cycle of mess and confusion starts again.  And at some point, it becomes clear that before the new can be accepted, the old must be grieved and let go.

In Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder’s new play, Everything’s That’s Beautiful, the system in flux is not a large company in the midst of merger woes or a team of executives with a new CEO.  The system is a family of four, one of whom is an eight-year-old boy, Morgan, who is ready to give up his action figures and boy’s clothes for a sparkly dress and a swimming lesson with a mermaid.  And that means a family – especially a father – must reach a point to say good-bye to a son no longer his before he can fully embrace a new, beautiful daughter.  The messy, confusing, unchartered journey of a family who are all in transition as one member moves from male to female is the focus of the world premiere of Everything’s That’s Beautiful, now in a stunning, heart-touching, and thoroughly captivating production by New Conservatory Theatre Center.

Transitions do not tend to come one at a time.  They wait until a mob of changes join together to slam through our door, invade our peaceful abode, and overwhelm us with unwelcome surprises.  For the Harris Family, not only is former-boy Morgan now a cute, pixie girl, the family has moved from a small, Midwest town to New York City to “start over” in a place that might better accept her; both her parents (Luke and Jess) are in new jobs; the family is now crammed into a meager apartment rather than in a big house; and teenage brother Theo is just being how all teenagers are when parents make stupid decisions that disrupt their lives. 

William Giammona, Dana Zook & Mattea Fountain
And as in any system where so many new balls are being juggled at once, s—t happens.  Dad does not (yet again) show up with Mom for a weekly appointment with the family therapist who is working with Morgan.  Electrician Dad in his temporary job as maintenance guy at a run-down waterpark and school-teacher Mom in her summer gig as a waitress in a greasy spoon both begin to have wondering eyes and lonely hearts.  Son and brother Theo feels totally ignored and cannot believe it is OK for Morgan to become a girl but he cannot pierce his lip.  Tension becomes heavier than the air before a summer storm, and the inevitability of some unexpected lightning strikes increases by the minute.

And through it all, Morgan just wants to learn how to float in a pool like a mermaid so she can finally feel happy.

Director Ed Decker and his creative team have orchestrated an idyllic, near- dreamlike atmosphere within which waves of this family’s ups and downs occur.  Gracefully carved curves, walls, and formations provide the feeling of the sea in Devin Kasper’s impressively attractive set where hidden, invisible pools, shores, and inlets are able to emerge as the story calls upon them.  Equally arresting in effect and beauty is the inlaid lighting tracks; the shifting hues of azure, purple and emerald; and the ripple shadows of water that are just a part of Virginia Herbert’s overall lighting design.  Sara Witsch provides soothing sounds of the sea with their mesmerizing effects that counter the oft-stormy clouds billowing in the family’s own skies.  The costumes and props of Jorge R. Hernandez accent the realities of summer jobs, the quirkiness of a teenage son, and the fantasies of a little girl.  And the entire production moves at a pace well conceived by its director with many touches to underline with sensitivity and heart the human drama of change with its unexpected surprises and its longed-for final acceptance.

Nick Moore & Mattea Fountain
Among a cast who to a person is near perfect in their portrayals, a first round of kudos must go to eleven-year-old Mattea Fountain.  The maturity she brings to this difficult part of gender transitions betrays her young age.  The sheer joy that permeates her tiny stature from head to toe when she first dons a dress or when she experiences an initial floating in water is exhilarating to behold.  And during those moments when she seems to be the only adult in the family, she leaves no doubt in our minds that this child brings some life-born wisdom the others have yet to attain.

As Morgan’s mother Jess, Dana Zook exudes patience, empathy, and concern that is a mother’s to show.  At the same time, the stress of all the shifts in her and her family’s lives also is evident in her exhausted shoulders, rest-derived eyes, and a voice that sometimes is half sigh-half cry.  Brother Theo (Nick Moore) is exactly the sometimes obnoxious, often pissed-off, always hormone-exploding teenager that a fifteen-year-old should be – with the adoring brother and sweet kid/son popping out unawares at just the right moments. 

It is in the role of the dad where the crux of this family’s transition struggles is most mirrored.  As Luke, William Giammona is macho guy who is doing his best to be sensitive – even if in an awkward, jerky manner at times.  His own transformations are a hike through an unchartered wilderness, with a couple of traps he too easily falls.  He alternates between an ‘I’m cool ... I got this’ attitude and a ‘I don’t think I can do this any longer’ collapse.  When Luke blurts in the midst of emotional upheaval, “I want her to be normal ... I want her to be the son I wanted to have ... When I look at Morgan, I feel embarrassed,” Mr. Giammona makes us shudder in a combination of pity, understanding, and disgust.

William Giammona & April Deutschle
Sexy and friendly Gaby (April Deutschle) is the key trap that Luke soon finds himself caught within.  As a Jill-of-all-trades at the water park, her main role is to star in a mermaid show – a sight Morgan, Theo, and Luke all like to watch (for varying reasons, of course).  Ms. Deutschle is tender and playful in portraying Gaby’s budding friendship with her new swimming pupil, Morgan; and her Gaby finds that she is perhaps a bit too tender and playful with her other new pal, Luke.

Tim Huls & Dana Zook
Tim Huls appears in two different roles, each performed with much credibility.  As the family’s new therapist, Dr. Miller, he shows the kind of empathetic compassion but also subtle directness that any one would hope to find in a counselor.  As Will, a guy hanging out reading obscure books in the coffee shop where Jess is working, he keeps his eye on her as she wipes down the counter, trying his best to hide a nascent and dimpled smile that only get bigger once she notices him.  His Will is particularly fun to watch as he hems and haws and practically dances a jig to engage Jess in some afternoon give-and-take sharing.

For the most part, Ms. Wilder’s script works extremely well illustrating the ripple effects that happen in any family when one member makes a life-altering decision.  That this person is an eight-year-old boy making a decision most of us associate as one even adults struggle a lifetime to make, if they ever do, is astounding and altogether timely to behold.  This script does ask us to employ a degree of suspended disbelief to accept that similar temptations are contemplated independently by both parents at the same time, especially without being given many solid clues beforehand.  But on the whole, the first outing for this world premiere script holds up exceptionally well.

In one month, New Conservatory Theatre Center has opened two world premieres (the other being the currently playing Leaving the Blues by Jewelle Gomez).  Everything That’s Beautiful is an important addition to the American stage and deserves, even demands, to be seen nationwide for the lessons it can teach about the unconditional love our children deserve, even as they turn out altogether different than we thought and even hoped they would be. 

Rating: 4 E

Everything That’s Beautiful continues through April 23, 2017 on the Walker Stage of New Conservatory Theatre, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photos by Lois Tema

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