In a synchronous twist of fate, the world premiere of Wayfinding happened to land at the same moment our country began to panic over air travel and crowds in light of the coronavirus.
Written with nimble humor and delightful irreverence by Minneapolis-based playwright Whitney Rowland, Wayfinding — at Synchronicity Theatre through March 29 — offers a timely and even cathartic compliment to, and escape from, virus-obsessed headlines.
Many of the most important scenes take place on a plane, and the comic drama circles themes of unpredictability, disaster, loss and the futility of trying to control outside circumstances. It does so with a twinkle in its eye and an all-knowing smile, arguing that no circumstance is so serious it can’t be skewered just a tad with humor.
Protagonist Jane (Sarah Elizabeth Wallis), we learn immediately, has lost everyone to whom she’s been close. In her darkly funny opening monologue, she stands center stage, describing the mechanical and cold dependability with which her loved ones have died.
Thanks to gumballs, traffic accidents, freak overdoses, heart attacks and other mishaps completely outside of human control, everyone Jane has ever loved has permanently departed, often randomly and suddenly. “Dead things just kind of accumulate,” she says.
Is Jane cursed? Does she just have the worst luck in the world? At what point will she learn that this is all one giant, cosmic joke? Anyone who has lived long enough to experience a string of failures, setbacks or bad breaks, likely can relate to that kind of fatalistic thinking.
In lesser hands, the constant bouts of narration used to move the story forward might grow tiresome, but with Wallis’ understated and effortlessly charming comic timing, Jane guide us through an alternately funny and touching story. Her entire physicality conveys a kind of surrender. She barely moves, contained to one spot, occasionally punctuating a point with a simple hand gesture, but always with calculated restraint.
Wayfinding also follows Harrison (Ben Thorpe) and Les (Charlie T. Thomas), an engaged couple busily packing for a vacation in Japan. Their tense and subtext-riddled conversation about what to bring is laden (forgive me) with more baggage than what’s allowed on any commercial flight.
Director Rachel May choreographs this extended exchange as a slow-moving dance of estrangement. Even the one or two moments of fleeting closeness between the two does more to convey how out of sync they are.
Thorpe embodies Harrison’s self-described “stray dog” self-hatred without a trace of the maudlin, projecting an authentic vulnerability even as he makes choices that aren’t in his best interest. The hopeful-to-a-fault Les wears his heart on his sleeve, a wavering but insistent smile occasionally bursting across his face to reassure himself that everything’s A-OK, even as fissures in their relationship widen.
Tying these elements together are some fine supporting performances, in multiple roles, by Evan Vihlen and Diany Rodriguez. Rodriguez shines as (in order) a recent medical school graduate, a haughty TSA agent and an overly confident police officer.
The plot takes a sudden turn midway through the 80-minute (no intermission) piece and, no spoilers here, we’re treated to a cleverly executed infusion of magical realism that carries Jane, Harrison and Les’ intertwined stories to another level.
These lovely seamless transitions owes much to May’s direction and Elizabeth Jarrett’s inventive set design, which becomes its own character. Long, white slats run up and across the stage, suffused by a soft glow of alternating pinks, blues and greens (lighting design by Elisabeth Cooper).
These planks can (and do) serve as almost anything, from the metaphorical prison bars of loneliness to the first rays of daylight and a densely populated forest.
A refreshing sense of possibility, airiness and hope emerges from these supernatural moments. The ambiguous twists and turns that dominate the show’s second half flip the characters’ fear of the unknown on its head. If they don’t know what’s out there or how it will turn out, then perhaps there’s room for healing and beauty, too?
It’s clear that Rowland’s career is just beginning, and this debut makes us eagerly anticipate what she’s planning next.