“Call no man happy till he is dead.”
– Æschylus, Agamemnon
It’s about the “quiet events”. That’s what we’re told by Ms. Forester the teacher fulfilling the titular Substitution of the short play that opens the evening. Also written by Will Eno, the story finds Ms. F (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) takes her assignment in stride. She walks in to find her name misspelled on the dry-erase board, her adult students somewhat prickish, and her philosophical notes on history pretty useless in this, a driver’s ed class.
Still, even when she finds the driver’s ed notes, it’s the mention of quiet events that piques her students’ interests – the moments, she explains, that aren’t written about in history. The everyday, mundane occurrences that aren’t sung about or made into portraits, but they go a long way in forming the specifics of the people and events history. Think of it this way: they’re black box theatre moments, not the operatic moments. The short ends with Ms. F imploring her students to have one of those moments.
It’s the beauty of those moments that occupy Guy (Tony Hale), the central figure of Wakey, Wakey, the one-act play that is the focus of the evening. He’s lecturing to we the audience on how the tiny moments and people fit into the grand scheme of things. “Over 100,000 people died yesterday,” he tells us at the beginning. He presents this in the context of that often misused quote about a single death being a tragedy, but many deaths being statistical. Guy is wheelchair-bound and possessed of what I can only describe as “fatal optimism”. He self-deprecates, he rambles, and he makes mistakes that aren’t actually mistakes.
We learn that he could hop out of his chair whenever he wants to – and he does – but is still bound by some unnamed illness that occasionally causes him to clutch himself in pain. We never learn what it is that ails Guy, but there’s only one reason someone can be that concerned with life and death.
I’ll admit that I’m not all that familiar with Will Eno, save for the fact that he’s part of the new (well, last decade) generation of NY playwrights heralded as the new guard, which tells you need to know about the uselessness of a particular theatrical “guard”. Granted, as an introduction to Eno’s works, it certainly leaves one with a better impression than the works of Annie Baker or Branden Jacob-Jenkins. Mind you, Eno shares their tendency to ramble on, but he possesses a focus that the other two have yet to show.
Guy is focused on the “quiet events” because those are the ones most relevant in the grand scheme of things. “Can your life be divided into two parts?” he asks. “The part before and after you saw the video?” Said video is a random montage of squealing animals (and one human tenor) with no particular rhyme or reason, other than every creature opens wide their jaw to make a noise. But it comes at the tail-end of an anecdote of recalling one’s favorite teacher and how their passing on knowledge gives them a sense of immortality. Guy’s lecture isn’t a Tony Robbins-esque motivational speech, nor a Jordan Belfort-esque snake oil cure for success. It’s a funny, sad, curious zigzag from one topic to the next because each change signifies a moment that has passed. What has that moment meant to you?
It’s an intriguing question Eno asks without browbeating his audience like a second-rate philosophy professor waiting out the moments until his lunch break. Through Guy (played with unassuming normalcy by Tony Hale), Eno gives us someone who has very little left but precious moments to be shared. How the character (whose occupation and income are never discussed) got access to a grand hall allowing him to lecture this audience, we’ll never know. But he got the chance to share, so he does. Because the only thing better than having a moment is sharing it.
In fact, one could argue that the direct intimacy of Guy sharing with us is stolen away with the introduction of Lisa (also Kathryn Smith-McGlynn), someone who is “really just here to be here”. Her presence derails the course of Guy’s lecture – which was scattered to begin with – but when that happens, Eno tosses the mother of all curveballs and makes us observers of their intimacy. Not romantic or sexual, but still emotional. At least from Guy’s end. Smith-McGlynn plays Lisa with the loving touch of a hospice worker – one who actually cares for their patient. This gentle performance gives Guy (and us) a sense of ease that takes one’s mind off his physical pain. We should all be so lucky when we reach the point of no longer being able to care for ourselves.
As usual, I’d be remiss not to mention the fine ACT technical work. Both the set (resembling a scholastic multi-use room) and contemporary costumes are the work of Kimi Nishikawa. Neither outlandish, but both effectively serving their purpose. Russell Champa’s lights are usually only noticeable when Guy orders the house lights on (and during the dénouement), but subtle instances of an aethereal light (with equally aethereal music by Leah Gelpe) does a lot to enhance Guy’s anecdotes. Gelpe also created the projections, one of which I and the woman next to me speculated were from one of the Qatsi films. If not, the influence is certainly there.
All of this leads to an ending that I won’t spoil here. Needless to say, it demolished the already-flimsy fourth wall for the sake of having the audience revel in the moment being made. I wouldn’t call it a “quiet event” by any means, but – like the play itself – it leaves one pondering whom they were before and after the moment occurred. Hopefully, they’re better off than they were before.
Wakey, Wakey is scheduled to run until the 16th of February at the ACT’s Geary Theater in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 90 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.