Standing Still Standing, a new play by Melissa Leilani Larson, is not your typical romantic comedy. The couple is already married, but being tested by Ben's Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), which keeps him dozing rather than doting over his lovely wife of three years (Grace, played by the spirited Heidi Hathaway). He has withdrawn from working, from life, really, and this naturally wears on their relationship. Grace bears with her husband, spurring him along to consider a new home, a job opportunity, but Ben (played by the affable Will McAllister) spends more time in the world of dreams than working toward realizing the customary dreams of the newly married.
Marriage can often seem surreal, a constant state of unity and disunity, change and constancy, acceptance and impatience, yin and yang, male and female. A woman in the audience during the talk-back session commented that she has been married three years and still wakes up wondering about the stranger lying next to her. My wife and I celebrate our 22nd anniversary this week, and I remain profoundly mystified at who she is and what we are. This play has a disease throwing a wrench into the relationship, but really that just accelerated or compressed the reality of most marriages: matrimony itself is a chronic fatigue syndrome--especially when the kids arrive, but certainly not just because they do. Unlike the disease, though, marriage is glamorized. We end up with the ironic counterpoint of profound intimacies and subtle joys being intermingled with routine and good, old-fashioned bone-headed idiocy.
I don't mean that to sound cynical; I don't consider marriage anything but our greatest opportunity for real happiness--but this is true not because marriage is bliss but because it isn't. It is arranged precisely in such a way that its two parties inevitably face life's inequities, as well as its paradoxes--such as the fact that that Other Person is alternately wound and salve. That came out well in this production. It was a believable marriage, a tested and durable relationship that partly suffered, partly prospered, in the wake of one partner's chronic problem.
In Larson's play, directed marvelously by Landon Wheeler (who directed Larson's Little Happy Secrets), the realism of marriage comes to us ironically through the surrealism of Ben's recurring and irrational dreams. Interrupting the flow of Grace and Ben's marital routine (in a way reminiscent of magical realism), myriad little dramas swirl around Ben, externalizing his fears and fascinations by way of wonderfully quirky minor characters that reminded me of those found in Coen brothers films. Matt Meese plays a baby in one-piece pajamas, sucking a binky and plopping on Ben's lap. Later he is Billy Joel (being married to Ben's wife by the Pope until the Pope kisses the bride) while Grace's friend Jen (the sparkling Courtney Jensen) beat boxes nonsense into Ben's ears--or in another vignette, squirts whipped cream on Ben's nose and croons "I Love You Just the Way You Are" to him.
Each dream sequence is disconcerting and fascinating, familiar and disturbing. Is Larson saying marriage is a nightmare? No, nor that CFS is a nightmare. The play suggests that marriage finds its meaning in the maelstrom of our weaknesses and our attempts to overcome them. And I think it says that the irrationality of married love is oddly analogous to the irrationality of our subconscious minds. Just as the fragments of images and emotional impressions knit themselves together into our nocturnal psychodramas in a logic that should not make sense but somehow does, so we knit things together in the waking psychodrama of our lives (or can) through come-what-may twosomes that with time seem both less and more profoundly sensible. Marriage is a saving plot device, a throughline, a lifeline, something worth holdling onto to make sense of the world, even while we unmask how unfit we are for life and even for one another.
Married people need to laugh or else they will cry, and Larson's work gave us a reason to work toward that always-endangered ideal. This comedy granted us a little more faith to believe that imperfect people (and imbalanced relationships) are worth fighting for not because they are exceptional, but because they are the norm.
I wish I had attended the first, rather than last, performance of Larson's play. I would have made an effort to rally people to come and enjoy another fine work from this young and consistently engaging playwright. I am consoled by knowing that the play is being readied for a film version, and by the fact that Larson is already at work on her next stage play, an adaptation of Jane Austen's Persuasion (slated for March, 2010 via Bluelight Stage Productions).