To write a play that looks grief in the face and laughs at it is a greater challenge than writing a drippy melodrama will ever be. It is also the far greater achievement, and one that gets closer to the actual experience of grief.
Come Back nails it. The world premiere by Neil Haven, directed at In Tandem Theatre by Jane Flieller, perfectly blends the grief of losing a loved one too soon with the surreal hilarity of life itself. It’s a captivating portrait of both friendship and coping with death in your 30s, and its only misstep comes when Haven veers too far out of that comfort zone.
The play opens with Sky (Sara Zientek), our charismatic narrator and lead, breaking the fourth wall for the first of many times to introduce herself, her new parrot Bruce and the parrot’s former owner: Erin (Tiffany Vance). As we learn from Sky in strategically placed exposition, Erin was her closest, dearest friend, a vivacious, adventurous woman whose efforts to experience her world were hampered — but not thwarted — by two successive tragedies: first a hang gliding accident that left her paraplegic, and then a rare blood cancer that gives her five years to live.
And, in her last days, Erin assembled a quest for her beloved friend: to travel the lower 48 states with her cremains, visiting dozens of kitchy roadside attractions that offer diverse and often hilariously appalling ways to commemorate your lost loved ones, from sketches using their ashes to diamonds, bullets and whoopee cushions made out of their remains.
It’s a trip almost too crazy to believe, and where Come Back’s comic gifts are best displayed. Zientek brings Sky to every charlatan and fanatic with skeptical curiosity, and they (played by Tim Higgins and Karen Estrada) do not disappoint, stepping into caricatures that make death laughable even as they try to sell it at its most sentimental. Estrada, who also plays Erin and Sky’s lawyer, does the most with her one-off roles, pushing her portrayals almost to the point of cartoonishness and daring audience members not to fall out of their seats with laughter in the process.
The other characters surrounding Sky ground the production, reminding us the show’s not pure farce even if it’s not pure tragedy either. Frequent flashbacks to conversations between Sky and Erin and phone calls between Sky and her other friend Mel (T. Stacy Hicks) provide the play with both poignant insights into the nature of a life well lived and an unflinching look at how a grieving process looks when Sky’s not disguising it behind a mask of sarcasm and humor.
And then there’s Val (Carrie Hitchcock), Erin’s estranged mother, who shows up midway through the first act to convince Sky to lay Erin’s ashes to rest in the family plot.
If there’s a flaw in Come Back, it’s that Haven’s script doesn’t permit Val the dimensionality and depth that Hitchcock brings to the role. As written, the play is Sky’s story, with all the other characters merely foils to illustrate her buried grief and her slow understanding and embrace of it.
As performed, Val hijacks the story as much as she hijacks Sky’s journey. Hitchcock’s character wrestles the narrative away from Sky, forcing us to see her buried grief too, smothered beneath layers of propriety and self-righteousness and rage that she was ultimately never able to connect with her daughter.
Yet the script ultimately doesn’t support Hitchcock’s efforts to humanize Val. At the moment of Sky’s catharsis, we’re denied Val’s, and she’s whisked away by the plot to sit lonely on the stage until Sky’s final monologue wraps up.
I see why Haven chose to leave things so abruptly. Life can be abrupt. One moment you’re filming your friend hang gliding through a Wisconsin field, the next you’re watching her neck splinter and snap. One day your daughter is sick, the next she’s dead. And when those things happen, it’s natural for your grief to lead you places you don’t expect.
I just wish Val got the same opportunity to come back from it.
In Tandem’s world premiere production of Come Back runs through March 22 at the Tenth Street Theatre, 628 N. 10th St. Performances are at 7:30 p.m. weeknights, 8 p.m. Fridays, 4 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $25, $23 for seniors/students/military, and can be purchased at 414-271-1371 or intandemtheatre.org.