Afterlife: A Ghost Story, the story of a couple reeling after the loss of their young son, is an intensely emotional journey that demands to be felt. From the moment an audience member steps into the Devine Theater, a pensive, melancholy air is immediately apparent. The music the cast has chosen to play at both the beginning of the show and between scenes perfectly captures this rather solemn air, a sadness that possesses a fierce intensity lurking beneath the surface.
Afterlife straddles between the real and the abstract, living and dead — this world and the next. The cast and crew of the show brilliantly find ways to distinguish one realm from the other, using lighting as an important tool to distinguish between the two worlds. The set itself is stunningly versatile, able to function in both the natural and the supernatural sections of the show. The sand along the perimeter of the stage is the perfect touch, bringing viewers directly to the beach house where the drama unfolds. The sand’s location also results in the ocean being located in the audience, allowing every emotionally-charged monologues to be directed right at the viewers.
Director Mollie Rodgers (COL’17) says she wanted a show that possessed both realistic and abstract moments. She finally settled on Afterlife because she believes, “If I only get to direct one show in my life, I choose this one because the story is so beautiful and the characters are each so gorgeous.” Her emotions towards the show are spot-on. Although the plot is fascinatingly twisted, the characters and emotional depth make Afterlife truly extraordinary. Each rehearsal was considered a discovery, according to Rodgers. In discussing the difference between directing a show like Afterlife and a comedy, she says the cast and crew had to individually decide just how much they could exert in one day during the process, explaining that the characters required each of them to expose themselves to deep and painful emotions in order to portray the characters correctly. Thomas Shuman (COL’17) who plays Connor, expressed the safety he felt in the rehearsal process in an email to the Voice. “We never had to go beyond where we were comfortable during rehearsals, and that made me feel safe throughout the whole process” he wrote. “The show is written so beautifully and every line has so much emotion, so it isn’t hard to get to the more intense moments; the words do a lot of the work themselves.”
Shuman and Emily Lett (COL’17) shine as Connor and Danielle, a couple returning to their beach house for the first time after the tragic loss of their son. Their strained, angry dialogue make the first act look effortless and natural. Even subtle gestures, such as the glassiness of Lett’s eyes when she steps into her house for the first time, or when Shuman distractedly rubs his jaw after complaining about grinding his teeth earlier in the play, add to the audience’s perception of the characters. Both actors stand out in their monologues especially. Lett gives an emotionally charged and heart-wrenching performance in her one-sided conversation with the ocean, where she concedes that they are not so different. They continue to reach out, wave after wave, hoping to finally get a grip; however, they just end up dragging something away. Shuman’s emotions were raw and riveting when his character chooses to read his own letter to his dead son. The guilt-stricken and melancholy performance enables the audience to emotionally connect more with Connor as a still-shaken, grieving father.
At its heart, Afterlife is about grief; that deep and devastating, almost tangible emotion that leaves people unsure if they can go on. Lett’s character describes this when she says that her heart beats slower now, when it used to be so effortless. “I just tapped into what it feels like to think you’ve lost everything, or to have your entire life turn upside down,” wrote Lett in an email to the Voice. “Everyone has moments like that, so I was mostly working with emotional recall.” In experiencing grief, there always seems to be a discrepancy between letting go and moving forward, or being forever rooted in the past and those lost. “Connor and Danielle are both hurting and a big part of the show is what happens when people try to get past something all-consuming and tragic, but can’t and end up hurting each other,” wrote Shuman in an email to the Voice. “There’s no right way for them to move forward, but they can’t stay how they are. Grief, especially grief like Connor and Danielle’s, changes people — and I don’t think Connor really understands that yet.”
Most productions try to portray a happy medium and convince people that everything will be okay in the end. Yet Afterlife is not afraid to leave the audience wanting. While one grieving parent finally comes to terms with the loss of their son, the other simply cannot. Afterlife does not flinch away from the fact that maybe time does not heal all wounds — and that those lost might never come back.