Such Sweet Sorrow

Filmmaker and playwright Mike Leigh’s works are often exercises in endurance. His works cover the quotidian, the everyday lives of everyday people, with a healthy mix of social observation thrown in for good measure. He rarely adds even a spoonful of sugar to help his medicine go down. And yet his catalog of work is so rich, every minute is worth sitting through, which is why theater companies time and again excavate his shows to perform. This is also largely the reason why Horse Trade Theater Group and Black Door Theatre Company have chosen to revive Leigh’s 1979 play Ecstasy. While the blueprint with which the companies work is an excellent, insightful play, the individuals involved in this current production, directed by Sara Laudonia at the Red Room, deserve much of the credit for revisiting this work so successfully.

Jean (Mary Monahan) is the fulcrum upon which Ecstasy pivots. The show looks at only two nights in her life, but it clear that Jean wants more for her life and doubts that she will ever have the resolve to seek it out. In one sense, not much happens. She has an affair with Roy (Josh Marcantel), a volatile married man whose wife, Val (Lore Davis), later arrives to wreak havoc. She shares tea with her friend Dawn (Gina LeMoine) and discusses her humdrum life.

There is more talking later, as Jean takes Dawn, Dawn’s husband, Mick (Brandon McCluskey), and Len (Stephen Heskett), an old friend who has recently moved back to town, back to her small London flat following a night of drinking. They have arrived under the pretense of fixing Jean’s bed (Val broke it during her melee), but the unspoken motivation also seems to be to pair Len up with Jean. The drinking continues, as the characters smoke, sing, dance, and reminisce.

There is a lot of talking in Ecstasy, and Laudonia’s production achieves an incredibly intimate effect. Though its size and poor acoustics sometimes make The Red Room a difficult venue in which to perform, it is perfect for this show. The audience has the perfect fly-on-the-wall perspective to watch Jean and her friends. Additionally, the music that sometimes creeps through the theater walls only adds to the lack of privacy and need to escape that Jean must feel in her solitary existence. (Ecstasy would benefit, though, from an intermission before the play’s long, last scene).

Monahan is extraordinary as Jean, anchoring the show with the character’s combination of regret, indifference, and surrender. Pay attention to her in the character’s “in-between” moments, when Jean is quietly reacting to another character’s comment or thinking of what to say or do next. This is a performance in which the wheels are clearly always turning.

The lead actress is matched by each of her peers. LeMoine proves Dawn to be a loyal friend and nimbly talks a blue streak, while balancing the additional challenge of looking progressively more inebriated. Heskett makes Len, a bumbling man, warm and charming, and McCluskey continually breathes life into the show with his energized comical delivery. Davis’ and Marcantel’s work is also solid. Page Clements is credited as the dialect coach for Ecstasy, though I have no idea which actors required such training; the English and Irish accents employed in this show sounded universally authentic to me.

Laudonia’s attentive, crisp direction has breathed new life into Leigh’s play. She has found a way to make the bleak lives originally depicted three decades earlier just as relevant today as they were then. A production like this makes a life of dissatisfaction seem somehow quite satisfying.

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