If everything else had been equal, one of the dearest loves of my life would have tagged along as I moved to San Diego from Ventura in late 2003. But everything else wasn't equal, which is why her relocation would barely have been worth the effort. She died seven months after I got here. And while I'll always grieve the loss (to say nothing of the freak accident that caused it), I take serious comfort in her freedom from the intense physical pain that dogged her most of her days.
The fact that she left us at only 38 still strikes me as a major injustice, something I share with cranky ol' John, a character in New Village Arts' current Sailor's Song. John's terminally ill wife Carla is probably not that much older, and her early check-out fuels John's bottomless cynicism. But John's a lot more compassionate than he lets on; anybody who says cool things like “Death is an opportunity to step outside and think” has a colossal heart in exactly the right place. He's about to rediscover the clout behind those words—in the process, he becomes the vital link in this particularly splendid work of art.
You wouldn't think it to look at him, but John's nephew Rich (Joshua Everett Johnson) operates a giant rig in his job as a commercial fisherman. John (Manny Fernandes) is a lifer in the same industry—and just as they share occupations, the men will trade philosophies on love and truth in a society that often wants no part of either. Rich's puppy-dog heart is in serious need of a massage, and he's found two willing masseuses in the persons of banker's assistant Lucy (Amanda Morrow) and Joan (Amanda Sitton), a self-described channeler who suspects Carla's dying without Rich having said a thing. John has harsh words for Rich and his affable, complacent ways, especially when it comes to these two girls; meanwhile, Rich chides his uncle for his glass-half-empty heart (no sooner is Carla's body in the ground than John hits on Lucy and Joan).
But death is no match for the men's true feelings toward women and toward each other. Accordingly, Carla (Robin Christ) rises from eternity to define the bond between her and John. For his part, the poetic Rich has always declared that nothing is as it seems, and Carla's resurrection bears him out.
The beauty of this John Patrick Shanley script is that there aren't any real villains. The characters are quirky, thoughtful and fun; even John's lewdness is forgivable amid the sense he makes. That's where director Kristianne Kurner comes in—she's seen the story for its clarity and hope, and to her great credit, she leaves well enough alone as this intelligent cast morphs into an extremely watchable unit.
That brings us to the dance sequences, those magnificent scenes that make this piece the object lesson it is. Christ's choreography not only fits the music beds perfectly; it's a script unto itself. Just as Shanley's dialogue reflects real life, Carla's netherworld is represented in almost exactly the same way through movement. Indeed, death is an opportunity to step outside and think, and amid Christ's reassuring touch, it's a phenomenon to be embraced.
I can't say that NVA's Sailor's Song is among the best plays I've ever seen, because the more shows I attend, the less certain I become about what constitutes great performance art. I can tell you that, amid its profoundly personal significance, it moved me to tears as never, ever before. Once again, performance art is the supreme reflection of life's most vital lessons. Once again, NVA brings those lessons home with grace, wit and, this time, a dignity unsurpassed in recent local memory. You will not walk out the same door you came in.This review is based on the opening-night performance of Aug. 2. Sailor's Song runs through Aug. 24 at New Village Arts Theatre, 2787-B State St., Carlsbad. $22-$26. 760-433-3245 or newvillagearts.org.