Reviewed by Jerry Kraft
"Vesta" is a didactic drama; it's a play intended to teach and to illustrate, in this case the issues related to the end of life as a medical, legal and social issue. Because it is a drama, however, it is also a presentation of distinct individuals in conflict: Vesta and her family, and the doctors, social workers, long-care managers and bureaucrats who are inevitably involved in her decline and ultimate passing.
Bryan Harnetiaux's play has been widely produced, primarily in educational settings as an impetus to discussion and explanation of the issues and dynamics of dying. This is its first professional production, done as an Actors Equity Members Project Code production, and for all its modest production values, essentially a bare stage in the basement at CHAC, the acting and directing is elegant and accomplished, the drama richly realized and effective. Allen Fitzpatrick directs this skilled ensemble to a tight and well-modulated performance.
In the lead role as Vesta, Megan Cole is simply brilliant, and I choose the adjective carefully. It is precisely that simplicity and subtlety in her portrayal that allows the play to blend the complex, contradictory, irascible and insightful nature of Vesta's character with the universal and mundane specifics of her circumstance. From her initial "minor" stroke through the loss of her independence, her home, her property, more of her health and even an inch of her height, we see a woman who remains clear-minded about who she is and where she is in her life. That strength of personality allows the others to play off the sheer substance and immutability of this woman whom each of them would like to re-shape in some way, but cannot.
I think the play's title is unfortunate, since it tells us nothing about the content or character of the play until after we've seen it. At that point, however, we fully understand that this play is, above all, about one very distinctive and compelling woman. That her journey illustrates issues makes her no less human, no less individual, in no way a bulletin board for talking-points to be tacked on. Ms. Cole makes Vesta this one particular woman, and this one woman alone.
As her daughter, Carol, Cynthia Whalen nicely presents a wife and mother torn from her everyday life to engage all the complexities of a dying parent's situation. The mother/daughter relationship is tangled and painful, yet her strength and maturity compel her to act responsibly, if not always "correctly." Of course, knowing what is "correct" is one of the key conflicts for everyone in the play. I also admired Brian Ibsen as the social worker, Marc. His easy compassion and genuine affection for Vesta is not lost when he ends his involvement because, well, he's not being paid any more. She is his friends, but she is also just a part of his caseload. That's the reality. Britni Reinertsen was fine as the granddaughter, Kelly, although the role doesn't really go much beyond the stereotype of a self-involved, relatively insubstantial college girl.
Her reading of Theodore Roethke's great villanelle, "The Waking" doesn't quite earn the depth and magnitude of the poem. That seems to me less about her delivery than because the play doesn't really earn the poem so much as it confiscates it, borrowing resolution and consequence not entirely accomplished by the action of the drama itself. I also felt the anguish and emotional expression in her death-bed scene was a bit over the top, and would have been better more internalized and contained than so physically expressed. That was the only point where I thought the performance lost a bit of its control.
The ninety-minutes of "Vesta" seems to me exactly the right length, and the issues of family dynamics and personal recognition involved in the dying of a loved-one were familiar, believable and frequently moving. There was just enough humor to keep it from feeling academic or tedious. Above all, this was a wonderful realization of Mr. Harnetiaux's worthy and sincere script. At one point, Vesta describes a dream she has, a nightmare, wherein she is somewhere under a dark street, pushing a button and waiting. I think that's a great metaphor for the last ride we all take, and for how it feels to all of us who stand beside her, stand beside the button, for all of us who wait.