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Hard work, gentle humor of 'Beginning Again' and again and again

Roland isn’t a bad guy, but he isn’t much fun to be around, either.

His negative attitude borders on the cynical, and he does all he can to keep people at arm’s length.

In fact, he can be so condescending it’s a wonder anyone will talk to him.

Luckily for him, in “Beginning Again,” playwright David Alan Brown introduces Roland to people who recognize his irritable negativity for what it is: grief.

Overwhelming and all-consuming grief.

Brown’s play, which is having its world premiere at Alleyway Theatre after winning the theater’s Maxim Mazumdar New Play Competition in 2016, is a philosophical exploration of what really holds a person’s life together and what gives anyone’s life meaning.

In three short acts, we see Roland (David Hayes) passing through the stages of his grief with the help of three guides – like “A Christmas Carol,” but with humans. In Act 1, it is two months since Roland’s wife was killed in an accident. He’s on the train, trying to get back to work, trying to stop feeling, wanting to be numb.

Then his Christmas Past, Anita Bryant (Smirna Mercedes-Perez), sits down next to him. Heavy, hearty and Hispanic, Anita wants to make the most of the long train ride to D.C., and unintentionally opens her conversation using a phrase that Roland’s late wife was fond of tossing around: “We never really talk anymore.”

The joke is jarring to Roland, so much so that, despite his impulse to hide behind his newspaper, he engages with Anita. He’s clumsy at it, pummeling her with esoteric statements top-loaded with multisyllabic phrases.

No slouch, she punches back, telling him “You’re just trying to size me up and make me look stupid.”

Eventually both their secrets come out. We won’t reveal Anita’s here, but she soon recognizes that her seat partner is in mourning. The air comes out of Roland’s pomp and Hayes begins to humanize his character. For him, he explains, it isn’t mourning, it is bare, raw suffering.

And there is nothing anyone can do about it.

Soon, Roland is out in the woods to start Act 2. It is now eight months since his wife’s death, and he’s staying busy, which is a bore, and avoiding well-meaning people who think it’s time he began to get past “it.”

Enter the spirit who emphasizes that all we have is the present, Gene, (Tom Owen) a genial rural recluse and country philosopher. Roland is more ready to open up at this point. His grief has evolved into a sense of absence “with nothing to take her place.”

Owen plays so easily off Hayes’ intensity that his softening influence is almost palpable. He provides perspective but not answers, recognizing that for every person, the answer is different.

Jump forward 10 months into Act 3 and Roland and his son and future, Dante (Adam Hayes) are in an art gallery. Now Roland is offering the support, with Dante acting as a mirror for all he is feeling. By now, both coming to terms with being two instead of three.

Although Brown’s dialogue is wordy at times as he tries to jam as many ideas as he can into his three brief encounters, the performers handle it well and do a good job giving the comic moments, and thus the audience, room to breathe.

“Beginning Again” is a deserving award-winner, well served by Neal Radice’s solid direction. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, it recognizes that the reality of life often requires more – art, myth and yes, drama – before we can know it with any sense of what we like to think of as truth.

THEATER REVIEW

"Beginning Again"

3 stars (out of four)

Drama of grief and life in three acts by David Alan Brown. Presented by Alleyway Theatre, Curtain Up Alley, through March 12. For tickets, go to alleyway.com.

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