Even in its most amicable and civilized incarnations, divorce is a tricky subject. Relationships are work, we tell each other. And in America, at least, we meet a reluctance to do the work—even if it means putting up with conditions that are, at best, beneath your needs—with suspicion. We would like to be able to identify the shirker, the one who didn’t make it work.
In Jason Robert Brown’s intimate two-character musical “The Last Five Years,” we get no such satisfaction. The musical, which is sung-through, explores one failed marriage from first date to last walk-out from both perspectives, but offers no easy answers for who’s to blame for the death of this relationship.
Directed by associate artistic director Meredith McDonough, “The Last Five Years” runs at Actors Theatre of Louisville through Oct. 26.
Cathy (Autumn Hurlbert) and Jamie (Jed Resnick) are a struggling actress and a hot-shot emerging novelist, respectively. At the top of the show, we meet Cathy, deflated and defeated, as she mourns the fact that Jamie “is done” with their marriage. The very next song is Jamie, waving goodbye to an unseen Cathy at the end of their first date, ebullient and optimistic about their future. The structure creates a very effective and very unsettling effect. We follow Jamie as he moves forward in the relationship, confessing his worry that things are “moving too fast” but then offering Cathy the time to quit her bartending job and pursue acting full-time. Cathy moves backward to cautious hope that they can work things out, then frustration with her career and their home life, to her hopes and dreams about their future together, and finally her own elated first-date goodbye.
McDonough works the transitions between points-of-view and time deftly, with assistance from Dane Laffrey’s rotating set and Paul Toben’s subtle lighting shifts. Philip Allgeier’s video projections add a cinematic quality to the production that feels more real than the teaser trailer for the upcoming film adaptation does. In the Pamela Brown Auditorium, the band—a tight ensemble of musicians from the region expertly mixed by sound designer Lindsay Jones—plays an eclectic mix of genres, including pop, jazz, rock and even Klezmer, in a small orchestra pit.
Cathy and Jamie meet once in the middle of their timeline, at their wedding. It’s the one duet the couple shares, and they have such chemistry together that it seems unfair we only see it for one number. Brown’s structure is a tough boss, and while it allows the audience to remain sympathetic to each character in their turn, it also removes any hope for an objective, outside eye. We don’t really get to see the characters react to one another, at least not in an honest way—it’s always filtered through their own point-of-view.
But Hurlbert and Resnick, both strong singers charismatic enough to carry a show full of solos, show us all of the sides of Cathy and Jamie, who are both endearing and pathetic, as we all are at times. It is possible to be both supportive of Jamie’s career aspirations and annoyed by his reluctance to commit, and there’s room to be sympathetic to Cathy’s struggles but unsure of what attracted her to Jamie in the first place. His success, which she then came to resent? Or was it really the success she resented, and not other women it attracted? So hard to say. It’s all a little too much like real life for a musical, to be honest, but it is honestly and expertly rendered, and can even be a cathartic experience, if we can give up that nagging need to pick a side.