Spoiler alert for all us mortals: There is no cloud-spun, harp-happy prelude to the pearly gates. Instead, we’re destined to check in at a perfunctory waiting room reminiscent of a dentist office, manned by an officious, saccharine receptionist and complete with mind-numbing paperwork.
Those slotted for the alternate destination may also want to know that fire and brimstone are MIA in that purported hotspot. Your eternity in Hell is more akin to the low-grade irritation of watching QVC prattle on interminably, while the lavish party that is Heaven is forever out of arm’s reach from your dreary couch.
Such is the setup for A Sudden, Spontaneous Event, David Lee Nelson’s whip-smart and seriously funny new show at PURE Theatre, which tracks the predicament of a stroke victim named Carole. Teetering on the brink of life and death, her destiny on Earth or elsewhere hangs in the balance.
When Carole, played by PURE veteran Joy Vandervort-Cobb, wakes up in a reclined chair, she’s clueless as to where she is and why. The last thing she recalls is enjoying a margarita at a birthday outing. However, a mohawk-sporting, affable Brit by the name of Wilfred (Scott Smith-Pattison, in his PURE debut) is more than happy to set her straight, if she will only fill out the questionnaire he’s been saddled with.
Wilfred has his reasons for wanting to get his paperwork in: they’re standing between him and eternal bliss. He’s been paying his dues as a guardian angel for the better part of a millennium, and he’s up for the ultimate promotion. However, when Carole’s file gets flagged, Wilfred’s long-awaited express track to Heaven gets stalled. He is instead charged by the highest power to return to Earth with Carole to sort out some unfinished business.
Armed with Nelson’s razor-sharp text and Sharon Graci’s deft directorial hand, PURE’s ensemble advances this plot with sparkling alacrity. In the role of Carole, Vandervort-Cobb is a powerhouse, thoroughly convincing as a self-interested, eyes-on-the-prize litigator, who is also curiously likeable. After all, Carole has done some pretty unsavory things during her stint on Planet Earth, and, since Wilfred is her guardian angel, he knows all of them (as will we). Nonetheless, Vandervort-Cobb’s candid humanity and magnetism makes it impossible not to root for her.
Though Vandervort-Cobb is a considerable presence, costar Smith-Pattison doesn’t sweat it. In the role of Wilfred, he is equally commanding. Though ever congenial, Wilfred pulls no punches when it comes to Carole’s wayward ways. He is on her side, but also affably makes no bones about his own stake in the game. Wilfred is a sporting bloke for sure, one you’d be happy to plop down next to on a bar stool, but perhaps you’d be a bit less inclined to hand over your fate to him.
Before intermission, the laugh lines are rapid-fire, serving up an impressive density of witticisms and spot-on societal commentary. A virtuosic sequence by Brannen Daugherty in the role of Stan involves his deciphering of text messages: “Who are these people who don’t have iPhones? It’s so rude. I need the text bubble,” wrapping up the bit with a panicked, “We are flying blind here.”
Then Nelson does a whammy on his protagonist — and on himself in the process. He strikes Carole with aphasia, the stroke-related inability to speak. She’s a lawyer, so impairing her way with words could just be a career-killer. And Nelson, a playwright of masterful verbal facility, must excise his trademark wit from all of Carole’s lines. Instead, he must craft speech for a character who struggles to come up with the correct word for a common object like a ball. Stripped of crowd-pleasing repartee, Nelson must venture unarmed into the breach of the unsettling, charmless stuff of human existence: regret, guilt, resentment, loss, fear.
This marked shift in tone inhabits the other characters as well. Carole’s estranged son George (played skillfully and sympathetically by Michael Smallwood) is relegated to the role of would-be speech therapist. Dutifully jogging his mother’s language memory like a hapless partner in an unwelcome game of charades, he awaits the arrival of Carrie, his friend with benefits, played by the engaging Liz Coralli.
All of the characters are mired in these messy emotions, with their skillsets compromised by the physical and psychological fallout of being human. Carole must face down her decision to prioritize her career; George needs to drag himself out of a pervasive mistrust that has led to malingering and womanizing.
At times, the audience may crave the blithe spirit of the earlier acts, and Nelson has set himself up with a complicating challenge with this bait-and-switch. However, with anything designed to elevate thought, there is a price for admission. And, fear not: Nelson would never leave you hanging. There is a reward coming for your efforts.
Richard Heffner deserves a shout-out for his deceptively simple scenic and lighting designs — who knew one piece of stage furniture could serve so many functions? Janine McCabe delivers with considered costumes that subtly suit the action and complement the script’s humor.
This premiere production of A Sudden, Spontaneous Event culminates nearly a year of readings and workshops as part of the PURE lab program. With Nelson’s recent announcement that he has now set his sights on Atlanta, let’s hope that PURE’s lab will continue to afford such fertile soil for original, well-crafted contemporary theater in Charleston. If not? Hello, QVC.