If two notes can at once be in perfect harmony but dissonant at the same time, that is what The Last Five Years does. Showing at the Bangor Opera House for one more night, Penobscot Theatre Company’s production is about a couple’s relationship told from the unique perspective of one character moving forward through time while the other is seen in reverse order. In this way, it is a deep and poignant exploration of a relationship’s beginning, middle, and end. Written and composed by Jason Robert Brown, The Last Five Years is an autobiographical play, based on a failed marriage. While the marriage ended in failure, the play lives on as a success.
Brianne Beck plays Cathy, moving backward through time, while Dominick Varney plays Jamie, moving forward through time. These two characters make up the entirety of the cast, with one other ever-present character, time itself: a large clock face looms at the back of the stage. Cathy is an aspiring actress, answering casting calls and going to auditions. Her ambitions, unfortunately, only take her as far as a touring troupe, and her dreams of making it in New York never materialize. Jamie, on the other hand, is a successful author, whose ascension is in stark contrast to Cathy’s failure to catch on. The unusual timeline works to accentuate these character’s different fates, as we watch Jamie’s story happen in chronological order and Cathy’s story unfolds backwards.
Given this challenging material, both actors do a great job of playing characters constantly in flux. Beck especially, as Cathy, deftly conveys a sense of doom even as her character’s circumstances are technically becoming happier as the play goes on. It’s odd that Brown had so much insight into his ex-wife’s struggle with balancing her desire for her personal success and supporting her increasingly successful husband, but maybe that’s something he realized after the divorce. In any case, the telling of this story could have easily fallen apart without a such a grounded performance from Beck. She went all in on this character and that was fun to watch even while the subject matter was pretty depressing.
As I mentioned earlier, a large clock can be seen at the back of the stage throughout the performance, reminding us of time’s role in this play. Besides the march of time, this dominant set piece also spoke to the impermanence of human affairs. Whether it’s happiness, joy, sadness, or regret, feelings are tied to the fleeting moments they were born out of, and as times change so do the feelings. The other thing about this giant clock was its symmetry, echoing the two characters and their crossing paths as told in the play. When their timelines finally cross, at their wedding, it’s a powerful moment, compounded by their surroundings and the symmetrical stage design. Cathy and Jamie sing together, but the audience knows they are moving apart.
Musically this production also goes in several different directions and the players handled it very well. The tone of their performances bolstered the material and was a highlight. Maybe in part because I was seeing the show near the end of its run, they were a tight unit, and the violin and cello provided a haunting ambiance.
Speaking of the end of its run, you can still catch The Last Five Years at the Bangor Opera House Saturday night at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm. While it’s not exactly a feel-good story, you will feel good about the performance.