On a Clear Day

From Christopher Shinns On the Mountain, Sophocles wavers in the distance

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The new play, On the Mountain, getting its world premiere in Costa Mesa before moving on to an off-Broadway run starting at the end of this month, is deceptively straight-forward, yet to cynics wary of the Cobain-inspired plot, it might set off alarms of opportunism or celebrity piggybacking. But they needn't worry. The plot's backstory does feature a Seattle rock star (named Jason Carlyle) who was the hero of his generation, married another rock star and killed himself in 1994 following years of drug addiction. But Jason is nine years dead as the play begins (he never, thankfully, appears in flashback), and the story turns out to be about a woman in her early 30s named Sarah (played by Susannah Schulman) who's moved herself and her 16-year-old daughter Jaime (the note-perfect Eagan) to Portland in order to start a new life after years in an alcoholic haze as Carlyle's lover.

The set is as about as literal and realistic as can be: it's a contemporary apartment, with a clean, orderly kitchen with a working sink (Sarah is constantly washing up); a desk with a working computer (once Jaime looks up something on Google, and she's really online); and a backyard area (the "smoker's exile") where characters really smoke and where the first few rows on stage left may catch a little secondhand nicotine. (On the Mountain was the first play Shinn wrote as a non-smoker, he says, and he's sublimating all over the place. And, anyway, the nicotine won't be the only toxins the audience gets exposed to.) For a writer who's being hailed as the voice of a new generation, the simplicity of the setting may come as a surprise: there's no modernist abstraction, no postmodern ironic fuss—this could be an O'Neill set, or even an Ibsen.

It's not easy to overcome decades' worth of experimentation in which playwrights and directors have labored under the modern conviction that the proscenium arch had to be a window into the magical or the heightened and otherworldly (rather than a frame for the utterly recognizable), but Shinn and his worthy director, Mike Rucker, have done it with ease here. From the moment Sarah comes home from her waitressing shift at a restaurant holding a shopping bag with one arm and dragging in a guy she's picked up with the other (Carrick, played by Nathan Baesel, who with his goatee and Gen X mannerisms is a dead ringer for Reality Bites-era Ethan Hawke), we in the audience feel like privileged voyeurs peeking through a window into real life. This illusion couldn't be sustained, of course, without Shinn's patient delineation of quotidian behavior; some very fine "natural" acting; Shinn's superb dialogue; and his way with plot, which doesn't feel like it "develops" at all, but rather unfolds, meandering, and then once in a while and all at once shockingly comes upon its own theme.

What unfolds is an updated version of the oldest story in the world: a person in denial about the past is forced to confront it. (I believe it was a man named Oedipus who first faced the issue.) Here the Oedipus is Sarah: a 34-year-old mother, newly responsible and trying to do the right thing, who'd very much like to forget her whole alcohol-laced, irresponsible Seattle years and manages to do so even though an embodiment of that past—Jaime, her iPod-toting love child with Jason Carlyle, and a blazingly fascinating mess of an adolescent—is living side by side with her. There's nothing instinctively motherly about Sarah—Schulman makes Sarah seem physically uneasy around her daughter, as if unsure when or how to touch her—and the two keep up an uneasy truce with each other until Carrick shows up to catalyze the plot.

Carrick, it turns out, is a huge fan of Sarah's old lover's band, and after some careful coaxing, he manages to get Sarah to give up coating her past with lies and to open up—a little. But Sarah's stubborn, convinced that the best way to deal with her past is to see it as a dream—or better, to "feel like it happened to someone else. Not you. And in a way, it wasn't you. It wasn't the real you." Walking blind into this cauldron of family strife, Carrick is believably patient and caring—Baesel gives Carrick a calm, slackerly presence onstage among these two often-frantic women, as well as the sense he's used to family trouble, that he can handle their moral and emotional complexity. In fact, the most touching relationship in the play develops between Carrick and Jaime, who share a love of '90s bands, cigarettes and writing. Jaime writes stories that are filled with odd alienating detail, loneliness and sexual mysteries she's trying to work out. These stories scare her mother, who wants her daughter's writing to "make sense," but Carrick, who doesn't otherwise seem like a reader, gets so excited by one story he summarizes it at length for Sarah (and for us), and we can see the kinship that develops between Jaime and her mom's boyfriend. Their bond increases the pressure on Sarah to open up.

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