In 2004 in the New York Times, theater critic Charles Isherwood raved over Will Eno’s one-man monologue “Thom Pain (based on nothing),” calling the caustic and comedic Pulitzer-finalist play “stand-up existentialism.”
In Eno’s newest work “Wakey, Wakey,” which premiered Off-Broadway in 2017 and is currently on stage at Dobama Theatre, the main character is sitting down. Wheelchair-bound, actually.
And while this similarly rambling, monologue-driven drama is written with the same infusion of off-beat humor, intentional digressiveness, and signature stutter-step rhythms, it is a treatise on celebrating life rather than a meditation on life’s disappointments.
Most remarkably, it is told by a physically and cognitively diminished man in the last throes of life. In an abundance of non sequiturs caused by increasingly fading faculties, Guy toggles between consciousness, subconsciousness and self-consciousness as well as between the trivial and the profound to share with us – aided by index cards to cue his fading memory – what he has learned in life so that we will not take ours for granted.
The play offers an astoundingly uplifting message delivered in a most depressing way. It has been said theater can be good therapy. Here, it is hospice care.
Key to keeping this 75-minute play from sharing the same fate as its central character is the fellow playing him. Jason Martin commands our undivided attention through the direct address required of him in the script and wheeling across the empty common room of a sterile institution – realistically rendered by Laura Carlson Tarantowski – that’s been carefully choreographed with director Christopher Mirto. Videos projected on the wall, which Guy operates with a remote control, help lighten the mood.
But it is Martin’s playfulness and gentle accessibility that makes us want to provide our undivided attention. And it is his ability to frame this conversation as a most generous, noble and agonizing gesture by Guy that makes us want to listen to each and every word.
Abetting this effort is Katrice Headd, who appears later in the play as nurse Lisa and does so with a delightful presence and genuinely engaging warmth. Added theatricality and a sense of Guy’s fluctuating realities comes courtesy of wonderful projected imagery and immersive lighting and sound, designed by T. Paul Lowry, Marcus Dana and Derek Graham, respectively.
Since Aristotle, death has been a topic that has permeated drama and come to define tragedy. But to address the subject while engaging in the act itself makes for a most intriguing and, sure, disturbing evening of theater.