Over the Hill

Characters in the bittersweet comedy 'Later Life' struggle with time's passage.

Drive up to Northern Arizona or New Mexico this weekend and behold the vistas: This is your life.

Would you rather spend your time scrambling through the mountain ranges, occasionally and euphorically cresting a peak, but more usually stumbling through the rocks and brush below? Or would you prefer to live atop a high mesa like Shiprock, enjoying a safe, flat, predictable existence, but being deathly afraid of straying too close to the precipice?

Now go to Invisible Theatre and behold the principal characters in A.R. Gurney's Later Life. They meet not in the Southwest but in Boston, on a lovely terrace overlooking Boston Harbor.

Ruth (Maedell Dixon) has lived the mountain-and-valley life; indeed, she's been a veritable boulder of Sisyphus, rolling up the mountainside through multiple marriages, then crashing down, indestructible but a bit chipped, waiting for someone--anyone--to start pushing her up the slope again.

Austin (Harold Dixon) is the man on the mesa, a lifelong Bostonian and successful banker, polite, conventional in thought and deed, stoic in the wake of a divorce from a woman who ran off with a younger man. He's been lucky all his life, he thinks--even the divorce was all for the best--but since his youth, he's had to suppress an awful fear that any day now, he'll somehow tumble over that precipice, meeting some unexpected doom.

Ruth and Austin are brought together at this party in 1993, but, as Austin initially fails to recall, they'd actually met 30 years before, on holiday on the Isle of Capri. Then, like now, they'd established an immediate rapport, but Austin had quickly withdrawn, not wanting to subject Ruth to his inner terrors.

Can Ruth and Austin get to know each other again, much later in life, just while stealing time from someone else's party? Can they re-establish that old rapport despite constant interruptions from a variety of odd, subtly grieving party guests? Can they save each other? Can you tell from this summary that Later Life is not a Douglas Sirk-style melodrama, but a comedy?

The plot outline does sound weepy. Yet the first 45 of this play's 90 unbroken minutes are exceptionally funny--not through jokes and pratfalls, but through the quickly revealed, subtle wit of the main characters, who must intermittently play off more broadly sketched cameo figures. The laughs taper off in the play's second half, as it becomes clear just how much is at stake for these two intelligent, attractive people refusing to flounder but painfully aware that now that they're past 50, life isn't likely to offer them second chances.

During the past 10 or 15 years, local theater companies have seemed intent on presenting the complete works of A.R. Gurney, though not in any organized fashion. Just since 1990, we've had productions of Love Letters, The Dining Room, The Perfect Party, Sylvia, Ancestral Voices, The Fourth Wall and maybe some I've overlooked. Worthy works all, but in most of them, Gurney employs some element that distances the audience from the characters. Perhaps it's deliberately affected dialogue; perhaps it's some theatrical conceit, like having actors read from their scripts, or building a comedy around the concept of the "invisible wall" between stage and audience. Often, Gurney seems less a playwright than an ironist commenting on playwriting.

Later Life is Gurney at his least contrived. True, Gurney does expect the 10 secondary characters to be played by only two actors (here, the excellent Sybille Bruun and Paul Fisher), sometimes necessitating quick-change work that an audience can't help dwelling on. And some of those characters are, compared to Ruth and Austin, sketched almost in caricature (especially an elderly couple, a Southern couple, and a quirky woman who eats alone, seeming to have wandered in from last year's The Perfect Party at Live Theatre Workshop).

Yet Ruth and Austin come off without affectation, displaying depth without artifice. Some of this is Gurney's doing, but the credit must be shared with sensible, sensitive director Gail Fitzhugh and, above all, the Dixons.

Harold and Maedell Dixon are superb, experienced actors of the sort you'll never catch "acting." Here, as always, they come across simply as people who allow key moments of their lives to play out on a stage, and the fact that those characters don't necessarily correspond to the "real" Dixons never crosses our minds; they are real, and subtle, and complicated, and we are usually better for having met them.

Bruun and Fisher admirably hold their own in this company. Bruun may look too young for most of her characters, and Fisher may play too many of his with the same, hardly Bostonian accent. But they otherwise delineate each of their characters well, even when Gurney offers them rather little to work with.

Almost all of these characters are people in the process of giving something up--smoking (Fisher's most appealing turn), an old computer system, Boston, family, companions. Ruth and Austin, too, are struggling with the need to give something up; but if they let go, will they find something else to grasp this late in life? Gurney's answer is ambiguous. The play's final moments offer both heartache and hope, and it's up to you to decide whether this bittersweet comedy is ultimately more bitter or sweet.