by HAYLEY HUNTLEY
this scene that crash lands in the middle of Failure: A Love Story. It comes out of nowhere. It could almost not be in the play at all — it wouldn’t confuse the plot — but to me, it’s the the pulsing heart of the whole show, the moment that pumps blood to the moments that follow. In it, a family’s black sheep brother puts his talking dog to sleep. And after it, the play isn’t quite the same.
Failure: A Love Story by Philip Dawkins, playing now at Coeurage Theatre Company, is all about death (or life, if your glass is half full). It follows a turn-of-the-twentieth-century Chicago family — the Fail family — and it contains all the fateful coincidences and chain reactions of a Greek tragedy, with one death bringing about the next until the entire family is wiped out — except for one lone brother, John N., who’s not actually a Fail by blood (he was discovered in a basket in the Chicago river: a baby clutching a tiny snake).
That’s the plot. Now for the structure, and why my favorite scene stands out. The first part of Failure feels like a Disneyland ride, a la Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s presentational and surreal. Narrators in the ensemble swing you through decades of exposition with a tongue-twisting, pun-filled oral history of this average but epic family. But the play, at first, feels far away, like the real story is locked behind the storytellers and their clever language.
And then, without warning, The Scene interrupts. This John N. character we met briefly in part one (played by Joe Calarco — picture Edward Scissorhands with a compulsion for pronouncing consonants) delivers a monologue about the virtues of euthanasia, because he’s training to be a veterinarian. And then he cradles his dying, talking dog (played by Gregory Nabours, who sounds like a Chicago gangster with a heart of gold) and speaks to him. This is not narration anymore. It’s a scene, with dialogue. We sit forward in our seats. The storytellers are letting us in.
In this raw, private moment, the sick dog shivers on his owner’s lap and recalls fond memories with his best friend. This thing that you know happens to dogs, that you hope you’ll never have to watch, we have to watch it here. A giant syringe floats just within view, but there’s no wishing the scene away. We train our eyes on John N. as he administers the drug and end his friend’s suffering. The scene grabs your heart and squeezes.
Isn’t it just true that you leave some plays having been entertained or intellectually stimulated or even impressed, but you didn’t ever really care? Structurally speaking, this scene is the intersection between Failure’s two halves: a telling play and a showing play. Because eventually, we watch every character (live and) die. We get to know the Fail sisters, and even though the narrators warned us from the beginning that each of them would die, I found myself wringing my hands and wishing I’d been mistaken, the way I watch Romeo and Juliet and really entertain the possibility maybe they won’t die this time. (Even my friend who sat next to me desperately whispered, “Come on, Jenny June!” in an effort to save the middle daughter as she drowned.) The narrators taught us the facts, but the boy and his dog taught us how to deeply and irreversibly care.
A couple weeks ago, I found myself casually telling someone about the death of my childhood pet rabbit and not expecting to, well, care. I was elevenish, and I loved him very much, but very briefly, because one day not long after I got him, I came home from school to find his long black body limp and lifeless, instead of bouncy and bunny-y, and it became the first and last time I saw a dead thing. I told this story imagining that the grief would have gone away by now, because he was just a pet, and one I didn’t even have for that long. But I failed the test. The grief bubbled up fresh. Maybe the moment between John N. and his dog is like that — it’s only the precursor to many more tragedies, most of them human and arguably more serious — but it still happened. It carves out a little hole for grief, and though we’ll gather more things to fill that hole, this thing dug it first.
NOW PLAYING: FAILURE: A LOVE STORY at Coeurage Theatre Company, through August 29.
Failure: A Love Story chronicles the lives, loves, and deaths of the three Fail sisters and the one man who fell in love with each of them. Set against the backdrop of 1920’s Chicago, this touching, whimsical tale explores the impermanence of life and the permanence of love.