The Hub Theatre company members hope they succeed in showing the audience the beauty that comes from grief when they bring “Failure: A Love Story” to the John Swayze Theatre for its D.C. metropolitan area debut.
The Philip Dawkins play focuses on Nelly, Jenny June and Gerty Fail, three sisters living in 1928. People hoping to avoid spoilers might find their attempts are in vein; within the first few minutes of the play, the audience learns that the three Fail sisters all die of strange circumstances. The production focuses on the last year of their lives, the relationships they develop and the family dynamic.
“It’s a play that announces itself as a play about death, but celebrates life throughout and never lets us feel sad about that,” said director Matt Bassett,
Several members of The Hub performed a staged reading of “Failure” at a 2013 festival. Following a warm reception by the audience, artistic director and co-founder Helen Pafumi decided to look for a director to take it on as a full production. She asked Bassett, a company member with The Hub since 2011, to direct thanks to his previous work with table reads and stage readings as well as directing at other local theaters.
Dawkins wrote few instructions for the cast and crew to follow. Instead, the script acts as a base for however a company wants to approach it, giving the production a unique life of its own.
“In early conversations, I found myself trying to nail things down and clearly define things with specific staging and imagery,” Bassett said. “What’s been wonderful is to find how much the play defies that kind of control.”
While other plays get into the specifics of acting cues, scenery and character notes, “Failure” allows the company members to act on their impulses and allow the story to progress in its own way.
A production like “Failure” that gives actors more freedom can, by itself, create a sense of obligation to do it justice. However, since this is the first complete show in the region and some of the performers took part in last year’s reading, some are feeling the pressure to do right by Dawkins.
“Everyone feels a real ownership over this story, it’s a universal love,” said Chris Stinson, who plays the sisters’ adopted brother John N. “Rarely in a production is everyone on the same page with the passion.”
Though the themes in “Failure” are universal, the writing is distinctly reminiscent of the 1920s. The speed and wit and character interactions typical of the era are currently popular through works of writers and directors like Wes Anderson, whose work Basset has used for inspiration for the production. The quirk and stylistic humor in Anderson’s films is found in Dawkins’ writing, too, lending magical realism to the language, structure and characters.
“There’s such poetry to the wordplay in the show,” said Stinson. “There are things that get recycled throughout the show, and we keep finding plays on words and certain expressions of love and sadness that are mentioned early on and come full circle.”
The characters in “Failure”, like Stinson’s antisocial John N., or the love interest Mortimer Mortimer, develop relationships with the Fail sisters along with the audience. Although their fate is known from the beginning, the grief experienced by the others on stage, as well, is not diminished. Instead, it allows the audience to understand what these friends and family members are going through and relate it back to their own lives.
“I think good theater gets you in touch with humanity and gives you a sense of empathy,” said Stinson. “Things happen, and you have to continue on to honor the lives of the ones you’ve lost but also you own life. It sends a beautiful message about carrying on in the face of tragedy.”
“Each time I work on the play, something will take me by surprise whether it makes me laugh or cry,” added Bassett. “And that’s what makes me so excited to share it with the audience.”