Laughter is a more potent healer than chicken soup--ask your mother.
With humor thickly coating the bits of homey wisdom found "In the Sweet Bye and Bye," Donald Driver's play is the kind of gently healing tonic that goes down quickly, before you quite know what you've swallowed.
The 3-year-old comedy is having its San Diego premiere at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre, in a fine production directed by Will Simpson.
Set in an Oregon farmhouse kitchen where resistance to change makes it seem at first to be a period piece (it's not), the play tackles a rather major subject: the passing, or passing up, of life itself. Death, grief, disappointment, infidelity, alcoholism--the whole spectrum of circumstances that never quite match one's hopes--are all covered by Driver's relentless sense of humor.
Jessie, played with comfortable humanity by Mary Boersma, is the central figure in Driver's examination of the muddles that either bind us up or teach us adaptability.
The first thing we learn of Jessie is her strange behavior at funerals: leaping into open graves, wailing over coffins. But this amusing description, rendered for us by her joke-loving husband, Hagen (Robert Harland), seems radically incongruent with the nearly lifeless woman we see before us.
Their exchange is a painless education: Jessie defends her behavior, letting slip the fact that she's jealous of the dead because they've got the answer to life now, and she wants to hear it. Hagen comes back with his endless one-liners, matching her word for word with silly replies until we all, Jessie included, set aside the serious frustrations and puzzlements for some good old-fashioned laughter.
It works for Jessie, works for us and plays out beautifully on stage. We get the idea, through this constant interweaving of comedy and philosophy, that life is what we make it, while Driver brings in other characters to fatten the plot.
Neva, Jessie's sister, is as gussied up in silky dresses and floppy hats as her sister is plain in aprons and prints (designed by Anne Doocy). Neva has her eye on Hagen; the two have carried on a kind of affair for years, which Hagen claims is not so much adultery as it is "getting even with Jesus," who steals his wife away for too many prayer meetings.
Rebecca Nachison's performance as Neva is full of comic goodies. As usual, Nachison has the character's relative sophistication easily in control, but this time adds a little spice, a little pouting and a lot of humor.
The man with the choicest lines, Robert Harland, handles Hagen's wisecracking with characteristic laziness. He's great fun; without him the comedy would shrivel.
Neil Ahern carries out his duties as a neighbor, Lamar, with minimal efficiency, but Susan Herder, as county nurse Carmel, captures attention with her fascinating directness. Her acting style is bold, simple, barefaced; it suits character and play very well.
Jessie's problems include a meddling elderly mother who owns the house she and the unemployed Hagen occupy; a best friend, Edna, who died leaving an alcoholic son in Jessie's care, and a town gossip, Myrtle Platt, who spills the beans on the little twists in people's lives before another offstage chicken can squawk.
With the exception of the drunken son, Bill Leland (played by Jeff Michaels), none of these characters are seen, but they play a big part in the kitchen events. Amusingly, we do hear a lot from the chickens, and the cows, and a large barking dog (sound designer John Hauser must have a new special-effects recording).
As the drunk, Michaels takes some heroic pratfalls but the actor seems very uncooperative with the character's preference for silent appearances. The visible conflict is distracting, as if the actor inside is trying to tell us, "Look, I've got a lot to say but they won't let me talk."
The Gaslamp's minuscule space is amazingly transformed by set designer Robert Earl, who displays a gift for convincing realism with just a sliver of stage at his disposal. Matthew Cubitto's lighting, streaming through the windows like early-morning sun, warms up Jessie's ancient linoleum and faded wallpaper.
Like life, "In the Sweet Bye and Bye" was written not to be demanded of, but simply enjoyed. Simpson and cast are on to Driver's approach, delivering a wonderful, easy evening for our consumption.
"IN THE SWEET BYE AND BYE" By Donald Driver. Directed by Will Simpson. Sets by Robert Earl. Lighting by Matthew Cubitto. Costumes by Anne Doocy. Sound by John Hauser. With Neil Ahern, Mary Boersma, Robert Harland, Susan Herder, Rebecca Nachison, Jeff Michaels. Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m., through April 26, at the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre, 547 4th Ave., San Diego.