Life Without opens with silence.
A woman enters from stage right, sits in a chair, and stares towards the audience. The audience stares back. Even without words, there’s a sense of bated breath, of waiting for the penny to drop.
It’s a feeling which continues throughout Steve Ross’s new play, directed by Jan Alexandra Smith in its world premiere at Here for Now Theatre in Stratford. Ross doles out the story judiciously over the play’s one act, letting the audience sit in the ambiguity and suspense generated by characters, whose narration is only as reliable as their own biased recollections of a complicated past and their role within it.
That story itself is best served by going in without too much prior knowledge. The twists and turns of these characters’ lives are so carefully delivered by both Ross’s writing and the actors’ performances that giving too much away would be a disservice to the overall experience the play creates. However, in broad strokes, Life Without tells the story of three family members as they confront their experiences with loss, and question their own responsibilities, successes, and failures.
As the play progresses, we’re gradually introduced to these three protagonists. Liz (a dedicated parent doing her best to cope with layers of personal and familial tragedy, searingly played by Linda Prystawska) and her husband Jack (whose more gentle storytelling is supported by the warm openness and conviviality that Robert King brings to the role) serve primarily as narrators, guiding the audience through their respective memories (and interpretations) of the past. As Liz and Jack’s stories eventually catch up to the present day, we also meet their teenage grandson Josh, whose struggles with addiction and trauma are presented with care and nuance by Sean Dolan.
The majority of the play takes the form of a series of monologues. Through these alternating perspectives, we’re denied the chance of getting any one character’s full point of view. Instead, the audience is left to piece together the characters’ often disparate recollections in the hopes of creating a complete picture. Adding to this complexity, the characters most often address the audience rather than each other (with the exception of the play’s last few climactic moments), a choice which calls into question who, exactly, the audience members are to the characters onstage. Up until the play’s final scenes, it’s unclear whether we are merely witnesses, or whether we ourselves play a deeper role in the family’s story.
Darren Burkett’s set design adds to this sense of ambiguity. Four hanging sheets of plywood form a simple backdrop, dividing the back of Here for Now’s stage from the space outside. On the stage itself, three chairs are the only other set pieces. Only two of those three chairs are ever filled at once, a choice which calls attention to the space that exists between the characters (both literally and metaphorically), and which raises the question of who may be missing from the stories they tell.
Throughout the play, the honesty of Ross’s writing shines. There are moments where the tragedy of the family’s experiences begins to toe the line of melodrama, but the earnestness and relatability with which these characters have been written steers the play away from that edge. Each character carries their own incredibly distinct voice — Josh, in particular, has one of the most realistic portrayals of Gen Z speech that I’ve heard — and the dialogue seems to roll effortlessly off the tongue. It’s easy to imagine that these are folks you’re sitting down with for a casual (if heavy) conversation.
Credit is also due to Smith’s direction. Her minimalist approach amplifies even the smallest changes in the actors’ body language, and she manages to do the rare thing of setting up a late-in-the-play revelation so subtly that it is nearly impossible to see coming, but looking back is perfectly foreshadowed.
Life Without presents complex problems without shying away from the fact that there are no simple answers. Carried by three standout performances, and with deft writing, design, and directorial touches it makes for a riveting ninety minutes that pack a heavy emotional punch. I feel incredibly lucky to have been able to see this piece in its world premiere production, and can’t wait to see where it goes next.
Life Without runs at Here for Now until August 26. Tickets are available here.
Intermission reviews are independent and unrelated to Intermission’s partnered content. Learn more about Intermission’s partnership model here.