It takes playwright Krista Vernoff just 80 minutes to capture nearly two centuries of the combined heartache, longing, and suffering endured by her sextet of female characters in the rich family drama Me, My Guitar and Don Henley, playing at the 14th Street Y. Vernoff—a television veteran who recently scored an Emmy nomination as head writer of Grey's Anatomy—has fashioned a moving evening that cannot be easily shoehorned into any particular genre or dismissed in a single sentence. It is complex, involved, and beguiling from start to finish. It is also, in the skillful hands of director Peter Paige (a stage and screen performer best known for Showtime's Queer as Folk), an impeccably guided production.
Leah (Tara Franklin) is a musician whose life has taken her up and down the West Coast, though she has always remained tethered to her dysfunctional, noncommunicative family. It takes a while to connect all the dots, but eventually Vernoff dispels any confusion by breaking down the fourth wall and doing the familial geometry. Leah is the product of her father, Bob (never seen onstage), and her mother, the ditsy, self-righteous Isis (Jennifer Dorr White). Bob and Isis were married after the birth of Leah's older sister, Janelle (Kaili Vernoff, the playwright's sister).
Complicating matters is the fact that Bob ran off with Isis after abandoning his girlfriend at the time, Judy (a wonderfully subtle SuEllen Estey), who was pregnant. Eventually, Judy gave birth to the responsible Sarah (Stephanie Nasteff), who never met her birth father or his new family until she was 13. By that time, however, Bob had divorced Isis, largely because he was not Janelle's father—a revelation Isis had no problem telling a 9-year-old Janelle. Although these events date back to 1969 (the play's events take place during the spring of 2001), their ramifications run deep, having sent the three half-sisters in divergent directions.
All roads converge back home in California, however, as Bob is diagnosed with esophageal cancer. The women reunite at his deathbed to make peace with him and each other, including Bob's current wife, Sunny (Mary Elaine Monti), a former stand-up comedian in a serious state of denial about her husband's health. All of the cast members take turns filling in details of their character's history and detailing their thoughts to the audience, and this confessional sensibility pays off.
Henley—the title comes from a song of his that Leah repeats during the show, saying, "There are three sides to every story/Yours, mine, and the cold, hard truth")—could have worked equally well as a teleplay, but the beauty of the show is that Vernoff's characters speak from the heart. The results are often for the worse, but her portrait of sad, angry, lonely, yearning people is a vital one and would be universal in any genre.
One major factor that makes Henley work is how meticulously crafted it is in everything that Paige and Krista Vernoff do. Seemingly throwaway lines and simple jokes are repeated later on, with disarming resonance. All of the actors remain onstage in character, even when not featured in the scene at hand: one can catch Dorr White as Isis ushering Estey, as the more wallflowerish Judy, to move aside so she can sit on her stool. These details do not take anything away from the show if missed, but they help energize it.
Of course, the stellar members of this distaff cast are to be commended as well. Franklin, with her distinctively sweet voice, does a wonderful job as the ringleader of this circus, caught in the middle of a passive-aggressive, lifelong war among her relatives. Nasteff, also an executive producer of the play, Estey, and Monti are all terrific at embodying their conflicted feelings; in this play, what the characters do not express is as important as what they do say. Dorr White and Kaili Vernoff, in particular, prove to be quite nimble in standout roles as strong women at odds with each other.
Paige ends this sentimental show by playing "The Rainbow Connection," a bittersweet rumination on the ties that bind that strikes a chord with everyone's inner child. It's the last, perfect choice in a show full of them.