Just because someone’s died doesn’t make their death a martyrdom. It doesn’t mean they were a saint. Complicated or downright negative feelings that a person had for someone when they were alive—whether they were a son, a student, an awkward teenage lover—can persist even after that person is dead. In fact, they can become even more complicated, more negative. Yet the thought that maybe, just maybe, the deceased was kind of a dumb jerk is not the kind of thing one says aloud at parties. And definitely not at wakes.
In her new play “Look, we are breathing” playwright Laura Jacqmin takes the audience on a deep dive through these post-tragedy feelings of ambivalence, bitterness and an inability to mourn. The play, which is currently receiving its world premiere at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble under director Megan Shuchman, begins with the death of Mike (Brendan Meyer), a high schooler who crashes his car while driving home high and drunk from a hockey party.
The primary voices in the play are those of three women in Mike’s life: His mother, played by Tara Mallen; his AP English teacher, played by Lily Mojekwu and the girl he drunkenly hooked up with the night of his death, played by Brenann Stacker. These women tell stories about Mike, mostly about what a little turd he was—rude, racist, entitled—and also take us through their lives in the wake of his death. While most people search for the meaning buried in an untimely death, the conflict here is in the struggle to find meaning in Mike’s life. It was short, uneventful and distinctly lacking in promise.
Shuchman’s work with this talented cast is vibrant, but controlled. There is a sense of restraint, of a dam buckling under the weight of a raging emotional flood. Mojekwu especially stands out as a dedicated teacher struggling in the face of indifference: from her students and the school administrators and from herself in mourning Mike’s death. Jacqmin’s tough, wonderful script ends in a moment of hope, but it wades through a whole lot of ugly, human muck in order to get there. (Alex Huntsberger)
Rivendell Theatre Ensemble, 5779 North Ridge, (773)334-7728, rivendelltheatre.org, $22-$35. Through May 16.