At the back of the church, a pair of cutups whisper to each other and try none too hard to stifle their giggles. They are not kids, from whom one might expect such behavior, but a married couple zeroing in on 70.
Then a song begins, an old hymn that sparks the woman's memory. She is transported, transformed.
The audience watching this has been making a wonderful sound already. Laughter. That's the true church music of "Going to a Place Where You Already Are," a terrific new play at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.
The levity arises gently and compassionately from otherwise contemplative topics: belief, mortality and the possibility of heaven. Playwright Bekah Brunstetter manages to treat these subjects seriously, drawing out their emotional resonance, while making them entertaining. Though just 33, she is in the midst of a career that includes commissions from and productions by some of the country's top theaters.
SCR has great faith in her. Not only did it commission and develop this play but for the premiere has amassed several of its most prized resources. The cast includes mainstays Linda Gehringer, Hal Landon Jr. and Rebecca Mozo, and Marc Masterson, the company's artistic director, directs.
The couple in church are Joe (Landon) and Roberta (Gehringer), who've entered a house of worship only because a funeral brought them there. Under their breaths they pick apart the pompous eulogy, and though they're misbehaving we like them instantly for their wit and their warm, easy affection.
The action then shifts to another couple: the 30-ish Ellie (Mozo) and Jonas (Christopher Thornton), a guy she's just met. As they banter, the tenor of their conversation begins to echo that of the older couple. Thirty years down the line, they could be Roberta and Joe.
When a persistent pain in Roberta's back is investigated via MRI, the diagnosis leads to a phone call and the connection between the couples. Meanwhile, a mysterious but apparently benevolent figure in white (Stephen Ellis) shadows Roberta as her thoughts turn increasingly to heaven.
Over 80 intermission-less minutes, these lives become ever more connected, even as one character must leave forever.
Some of what is said hangs in the air as double meaning. ("You're still there," Ellie says into the phone when Jonas lingers, not hanging up, at the conclusion of a heart-to-heart.) Other lines are so packed with insight that you want to write them down for future use. ("I feel like I'm not doing life right. I'm wasting it," Ellie says to Roberta, who replies, simply, "There's no such thing.")
Brunstetter — reared in Winston-Salem, N.C., now a resident of Los Angeles — has been produced by the likes of New York's Atlantic Theater Company ("Oohrah!") and Ars Nova ("Be a Good Little Widow," subsequently presented at San Diego's Old Globe and North Hollywood's NoHo Arts Center). For television, she wrote for Seasons 2 to 4 of ABC Family's "Switched at Birth" and is a co-producer-level writer for an upcoming Starz series based on Neil Gaiman's fantasy novel "American Gods."
SCR gives her outstanding support. The performances are remarkable, especially Gehringer's. As Roberta she is earthy, nurturing and sensual — the intensely vital center of this story. Landon's Joe is achingly human as the guy who's used to having all the answers and can't quite comprehend that he's come up against something he can't reason his way out of.
Changes of scene on SCR's smaller Argyros Stage are swiftly facilitated by Michael B. Raiford's set, which at first seems almost austerely minimalist. But just wait and you'll see all of the marvelous things it can do. Tom Ontiveros' artful lighting keeps our eyes focused in the right place when little moments of magic occur.
As director, Masterson fosters fluidity, grace, surprise and delight.
So what about that enigmatic title? Here's one way to look at it: Whatever our level of belief, we can all imagine heaven. Perhaps we're already there — at least if we watch for the bits of it that reveal themselves each day.