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The Story of My Life
Music and Lyrics by Neil Bartram
Book by Brian Hill
Directed by Scott Miller
New Line Theatre
October 1,, 2021

Jeffrey M. Wright, Chris Kernan
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

In a season in which many local theatres are returning to live performance, it’s now New Line’s turn. For its new season opener, director Scott Miller has chosen a show that’s not “big” in the sense of being elaborate or flashy, or having a large cast, but it ends up being big in another, important way. While it may only have two cast members and a piano accompaniment, The Story of My Life is “big” in that it’s meaningful, and relatable to the audience in an especially memorable sense. 

This is simple story in its essence. Bestselling author Thomas Weaver (Jeffrey M. Wright) is trying to write the eulogy for his recently deceased childhood friend, Alvin Kelby (Chris Kernan), who “helps” Tom come to terms with his thoughts about what to write, as well as Tom’s memories and regrets concerning his relationship with Alvin, from when they first became friends in first grade, up until their last meeting shortly before Alvin’s death. Tom has a lot to think about, and Alvin appears as something of a representative of his conscience, reminding him to dig deeper into his memories and the mountain of thoughts and stories to not only remember the good times and the bad, but to discover the profound influence Alvin has had on Tom and his writing over the years. It’s a detailed reflection of an influential friendship, with memorable songs that fit into the story and help develop the characters, as we hear tales of their meeting, of Alvin’s unique personality and attachment to his family’s bookstore, the movie It’s a Wonderful Life, the tradition of making snow angels on Christmas day, and more, as the two boys grow up and go in different directions and even drift apart, although Tom can’t forget Alvin, and is reminded of the importance of their friendship.

One of the great things about this show is how “writer-y” it is. As a writer myself, I look at this show and see a lot of how it is constructed, even being able to predict some plot points simply based on how the story is building. While “predictable” is often seen as a bad thing, in this show it works, because the very structure of it is a reflection of the character of Tom, in whose brain the story is essentially taking place. Here, on Rob Lippert’s brilliantly realized set, Tom sits at his writer’s desk trying to compose the eulogy, but he’s constantly distracted by thoughts and memories of Albert. The piles of books and papers that cover the stage are representative of Tom’s thoughts and how he organizes them, as stories. The story builds in recognizable beats, but there is much that isn’t predictable as well, such as the unique quirks of Albert that Tom remembers, and their unique story as friends. It’s a story full of humor and heartbreak, joy and tragedy, and a testimony to the importance and influence of a good friend on a person’s life even after that friend is gone. 

In addition to the marvelous set, there’s also excellent lighting by Kenneth Zinkl that gives the space an ethereal quality that works especially well considering the elements of fantasy here, and the glow that surrounds Alvin in much of the show suggests a “guardian angel” quality to the character, kind of like Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life, who is often mentioned by Alvin. The costumes are credited to Kernan and Wright, and they have outfitted themselves ideally here, with Wright getting the “stereotypical intellectual” look with his button-down shirt and sweater vest; and Kernan clad all in white, again suggesting an angelic or ghostly quality that’s only augmented by the lighting. The staging is simple, with Lippert’s unit set and only a single piano accompaniment, by director and music director Miller. 

The performances are fantastic, as well, with the interplay between the two actors especially strong. Wright plays Tom with a somewhat stuffy quality from the beginning, and his journey as a character is evident as he interacts with Kernan’s quirky and offbeat but loving Alvin, who is there as a creature of Tom’s memory and conscience, but is embodied with much  warmth, energy and emotion by Kernan. Wright shows Tom’s growth throughout the course of the play with a great deal of credibility, and by the end it’s easy to believe the emotional journey he has taken, with the help of his memories of Alvin. Both performers are in great voice, as well, as is usual for New Line.

I think most people seeing this show will easily be able to relate to many of the issues brought up here, and specific friends and friendships. The Story of My Life is an apt title, since many of its themes are universal. At New Line, this simply staged show displays a great deal of complexity in its characters and their relationship, and even though it might not be “big” in the sense of size, it’s message is of profound importance. This is a very human show, with joy, with a very human heart. 

Jeffrey M. Wright, Chris Kernan
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

New Line Theatre is presenting The Story of My Life at the Marcelle Theatre until October 23, 2021

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