There are four great performances and a great idea trapped in Trista Baldwin’s play Kill Me Don’t Go. The problem is they have a really hard time getting out.
Cheryl Willis and Patrick Bailey as married professionals Marcella and Richard, Neal Skoy as Richard’s protege Ethan, and Sara Richardson as their nanny Joy all turn in very compelling performances in this Workhaus Collective production currently running at the Playwrights’ Center.
“I felt like someone was holding my heart on the other side of the earth.”
Depending on what you think the play is about, there’s potential for powerful storytelling here. The focus often seems to be on Marcella, the fact that they have a new baby in the house, and how new motherhood impacts her role as a woman, a career woman, and a wife. The play also spends a lot of time focused on Marcella and Richard as a couple and how, baby or no baby, the fire seems to have gone out of the relationship. The miscommunication and missed connections between them become fairly epic in scope. Then again, the play grapples with the concept of Ethan and Joy as reflections of Richard and Marcella when they were younger, often metaphorically or symbolically, sometimes (?) literally. Or perhaps Ethan and Joy are manifestations of the Richard and Marcella that might have been, or yet could be. It’s hard to tell.
“How can you say you’re alone when I’m standing right here?”
The terror that sometimes comes with facing the vast abyss known as the future, and the idea of somehow limiting your options by committing yourself to just one other person for the rest of your life, be he or she a spouse or a child—that terror seems to be the edge of the cliff on which this play wants to dance. That has the potential to be riveting. Not just someone whining about what they could or couldn’t be doing if only they had made a different choice; people do that all the time. When Kill Me Don’t Go gets interesting is when it conveys the characters’ sense of their insignificance in the larger scheme of things. The sort of thing that makes you want to scream. The knowledge that the slightest misstep can alter your future permanently and perhaps not for the better. The challenge of living purposefully and alert, to always be conscious of the decisions you’re making and what consequences come with them. To not drift through your life but actually to live it. The paradox is that sometimes the one way to beat back against the darkness, to plant your flag and say “I was here,” is to commit yourself to another person (lover or child), to the possibility that you could make one another better, allow each other to more quickly reach their fullest potential. That concept could make for an electrifying play. The struggle with watching Kill Me Don’t Go is that it seems to spend a lot of its time wandering around nowhere near that territory.
“My back is as straight as any other man’s, even with your weight around my neck.”
The play seems to be inviting comparisons to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Richard works in academia, there is a liberal use of booze, the child may or may not be real, the older couple draws the younger couple into the middle of their domestic battlefield. Baldwin and Albee are very different playwrights and it doesn’t seem as if Baldwin is interested in traveling the same terrain as Virginia Woolf, so I was puzzled why anyone would invite the long shadow cast by that monolith to envelop her own play if she didn’t have to.
“People need each other. It’s not always pretty, but you have to allow for it.”
Richard’s profession appears to have absolutely no bearing on the outcome of the play or his character whatsoever. He could act as mentor in any number of fields and bring an eager young man like Ethan into his orbit. Likewise, Marcella’s work as an artist and as a fundraiser for other artists, and Joy’s aspirations as an artist, seem to matter not at all. There’s a lot of random information like this taking up space in the play that doesn’t illuminate character or drive plot, which ends up feeling like the clutter that litters the set.
“If you say you don’t want to be with me, I’ll probably end up stalking you.”
The play spends a lot of time and energy trying to convince us it’s based in our reality, but it ends up being most successful in its absurd and non-linear moments. There’s a recurring sequence in the second act where Marcella and then Richard imagine killing each other, repeatedly, and the other person simply revives for another attempt on their life. This is followed by a series of moments in which the two of them imagine simply stroking out and dying in order to escape the conversation in which they feel trapped. Elsewhere, there is a less successful but still intriguing moment in which Marcella imagines herself drowning while Joy floats above her, echoing her words. Richard’s longing to return to running finds him jogging in place in his bathrobe in the middle of the night. That moment is reflected later when Ethan goes out for an actual night run, an extended sequence that has the smarts to just exist without any dialogue and let us make of it what we will.
“We sleep together with our dreams running side by side like train cars.”
Another image which sticks with me is a moment early on when the sound of the wind and the sea kicks in, and the actor who we don’t yet know as Ethan appears in a yellow rain slicker and helps dress Richard up in a slicker of his own. They stand side by side, rocking on the deck of an imaginary boat, their fishing lines cast into the water, waiting for something to bite. Then non-Ethan (Richard’s father? a manifestation of his younger self?) recedes and Marcella brings out Richard’s bathrobe, dressing him in that instead.
“A large rodent in Siberia was found to have a human heart.”
Kill Me Don’t Go seems to be needlessly suffering from a dual personality. It could just relax and let its non-linear, absurdist freak flag fly, not let itself get bogged down in the mechanics of trying to pretend to be grounded in the real world. With actors this good, the characters could do anything and we’d believe it. We’d follow this alternate universe’s bizarro logic, whatever it was, as long as it was clear.
“Green leaves after such a long winter.”
Or the play could stop skating along the surface of these people’s straight, white, first world problems and really dig in. What if the baby is real (as it seems to be in act one)? What if they can’t afford a nanny, but they could just barely afford for Marcella to stay at home with the baby? What if they had to deal with being parents? What if they had to deal with being a couple?
“You can’t look at me like someone you don’t love.”
Right now the two styles of Kill Me Don’t Go are at war with each other rather than complementing each other, so it’s not fully effective being either one. I want to care about these characters. I want to get to know them better. These actors make it possible for me to care about these characters, but right now, nothing really happens.
Read Lydia Howell’s review of the 2008 Workhaus Collective production of Trista Baldwin’s Forgetting and Jay Gabler’s review of the 2010 New Theatre Group production of Trista Baldwin’s American Sexy.