Spoiler alert: The three daughters of the Fail family, Nelly, Jenny June, and Gertie all die in PURE Theatre’s play, Failure: A Love Story
. Well, actually, it’s not a spoiler because they announce this fact in the beginning refrain, even including the cause of deaths: “blunt object, disappearance, and consumption,” respectively. Surely this cannot make for an uplifting love story. On the contrary, this latest PURE production is entirely heartwarming, largely due to a splendid cast, innovative choreography, and scintillating set design.
Written by Philip Dawkins and first premiering in Chicago in 2012, Failure: A Love Story spins the tale of the Fail family — formerly the Failbottoms — who immigrated to the United States around the turn of the 20th century from an unnamed homeland. After having their name truncated to Fail at Ellis Island upon their arrival, they eventually settled on the banks of the Chicago River, where the elder Fails — Henry and Marie — opened the Fail Clock Shop.
Before the sisters meet their expected fates, however, the family finds an infant boy in a basket floating along the river. Learning his name, John N., from a note found with him, they adopt him and he becomes part of the family. After the sisters have grown and now work in the family clock shop, a man named Mortimer Mortimer — “it’s a family name,” he claims — struts in and is promptly enamored with Nelly, the youngest daughter. They fall in love and plan to marry, but — you probably see where this is going — alas, they never make it, and the Fail sisters are down to only two.
Mortimer sticks around, eventually falling in love with not one but both of the remaining sisters before they meet their untimely ends. Soon, Mortimer is left with only John N. who loves and keeps animals, including an African boa constrictor, and was never very good with people, according to his siblings. And, well, I’ll stop there lest I give it all away.
Despite the play’s macabre subject matter, the production at PURE is simultaneously hilarious and heart-wrenching, and though the ending has been spoiled, the way the cast tells it makes it very enticing. The individual performances by each cast member are to be applauded, though two members stand out in particular. Camille Lowman who plays primarily Gertie and Marie, but also the parts of Nelly and Jenny June, and Michael Smallwood as Mortimer are really exceptional. Their dialogue drives many of the key parts of the play.
According to the playwright’s notes, the play can be performed with “as few as four [actors] or as many as fifty.” Such openness is certainly challenging for any individual company to take it on, but PURE’s creative approach wherein all of players share narration duties and slide through multiple characters with the help of minor costume changes, surprisingly works. For instance, when Lowman dons a scarf, she is Marie; an apron signifies her as Gertie, and so on. Thus, while Lowman and Smallwood deliver excellent performances, the play thrives because of the close connection and teamwork of the ensemble.
While the cast and choreography stand out, the set design of the play is likely one of the more visually intriguing ones in Charleston theater as of late. Part of a collaboration with the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, the set design is courtesy of Susan Klein, an abstract painter whose work is currently on view at the art museum. Her treatment of the set’s physical elements — the car and trailer — show a painterly style, using broad, visible brushstrokes and repetition of geometric elements, like X’s and other shapes. Further, the background of the stage is an elaborate pattern of purple and black curtains, not unlike a large abstract painting itself. Stylistically, the set appears a playful take on social realist paintings of the 1920s and 30s by Thomas Hart Benton and others.
Theater productions often rely on a team of people to succeed, and this one explicitly demonstrates how true that can be. With creative approaches to a play that is by design open to interpretation and joined by captivating choreography and set design, Failure: A Love Story
will certainly not, um, fail to disappoint.