By Brian Yorkey and Tom Kitt
February 1-10 | atgr.org
“If/Then,” the latest offering by Actors’ Theatre, is a fast-paced and entertaining production loaded with talented singers and musicians. The vocal power of the cast brought even the simplest lyrics to a higher level, and the 10-piece orchestra spanning the length of the upper stage behind a sheer scrim provided truly beautiful moments. I often found myself focusing in on the lovely weaving of strings and reeds, so much so that I think the collective musicians became one of my favorite characters in the show.
Amidst this enjoyable musical backdrop, the main character of Elizabeth (Molly Jones) is the flashpoint for a common philosophical question that at some point crosses every human’s mind – what if I made a slightly different decision, what if I chose a seemingly inconsequential next step in life, then would it have significant consequences down the road? The if/then game.
It plays out here in both lighthearted and serious ways, as we watch Elizabeth split off into “Liz” and “Beth” based on one simple yet fateful decision in a New York City park. Liz’s decision leads her to marriage and motherhood, Beth’s decision to a successful career as an award-winning city planner. Her actions don’t just alter her life, however. We also meet an interesting and diverse group of friends, lovers and colleagues who intersect and influence her (and in return, are influenced as well).
As you can imagine, it gets complicated flipping between and sometimes conflating the parallel lives of Elizabeth and keeping Liz and Beth straight with the audience. Director Jolene Frankey manages to give enough hints in staging, along with both subtle and not so subtle props and scenic design, to ensure we don’t get too lost.
In the if/then scenario, it’s the tragic moments that really make us question our past decisions and their outcomes, wishing we could change things for the better. To find peace we eventually need to come to terms with the real life that played out, however it plays out. We witness that painful, yet freeing, coming to terms in the song “You Learn to Live Without.”
Jones clearly understood the transition in that song, and infuses it with layered emotion that connects with us deeply. The idea that dwelling too long on what could have been is futile. The beauty of this world is the unique place that each decision, each unexpected event, each moment of turning this way or that, is what makes us who we are. And new decisions and opportunities are always on the path ahead.
As with all of Actors’ season selections, this production leaves you thinking. Indeed, my mind wandered off to my own if/then thoughts on life and observations. The one I really couldn’t shake was:
If Broadway included more female writers (the percentage each year is usually in the single digits, despite the audience being nearly 70 percent female), then would we have found a different perspective in a show like “If/Then” (libretto by Brian Yorkey and theatrical score by Tom Kitt)?
For a work that is so progressive when it comes to embracing a diverse mix of ‘non-traditional’ relationships among Elizabeth’s friends, it seems when we examine the ‘traditional’ heterosexual relationship here, women are still asked to choose between wife and motherhood or high impact career. In these common stories, you can guess which one is valorized through the narrative arc to bring fulfillment and happiness. It happens in Hollywood, too.
Upon further reflection of “If/Then,” I do think the writers offered enough cracks on each side of Elizabeth’s parallel lives to both fall through and let light shine in, especially in the final scene. We get to interpret what happens from there. In the end, perhaps, given enough time, the worlds come together and find balance between love and ambition no matter the gender or relationship.
Looking at the past and current Actors’ seasons, I am happily reminded that they are very intentional about including a diverse array of voices. Until Broadway increases its percentage for some of those perspectives, please continue to find those less represented writers that are innovative and challenging for the artists, and thought-provoking and entertaining for us all.
“If/Then” runs through Feb. 10 at Spectrum Theatre. Ticket information at Actors’ Theatre.
*Photos courtesy of Actors’ Theatre