From the darkened stage, the upbeat recorded sound of the Beach Boys’ “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” plays. Lights up. Decrescendo music. An elderly couple sits alone, passive and silent at first.
She (matter of factly): “I think I would like a divorce.”
He (matter of factly): “All right.”
So begins “Grand Horizons,” a funny and serious and delightful look at fractious family life, from playwright Bess Wohl, wonderfully produced by San Jose Stage.
Bill (Julian López-Morillas) and Nancy (Lucinda Hitchcock) have been married for 50 years, and on the surface, they have been happy, or at least content. But when they dispassionately announce their decision to divorce to their visiting adult sons, Brian (Nick Mandracchia) and Ben (Johnny Moreno), the boys are flabbergasted. As expected, they have questions like “What happened?” but worse, they have answers, like “We can fix this,” as if the breakup could be within their control. And when they finally realize that it could actually happen, it’s “Why couldn’t you get divorced when we finished school, like normal people?”
Problem is, kids often see parents through a restricted lens, only for their parental roles and not as complete people, especially not as people before they became parents. In the equivalent of yelling “too much information” and covering their ears, the sons hear their mother’s unexpurgated account of a sexual experience of hers in candid language – and it wasn’t with their father. Needless to say, the revelation is disconcerting. Ben’s reaction is uncompromisingly severe and juvenile, screaming that their whole lives have been lies, BS.
As with many relationships, there are things that are said and things that are unsaid. In Bill and Nancy’s case, one was having a current affair, and the other had maintained a relationship with a pre-marriage lover. Each thought that their liaison was secret, but in both cases, the other spouse knew. But more important than the transgressions, they suffered from the “women are from Venus, men are from Mars” syndrome, wanting to communicate and understand one another but not always knowing how.
Younger son, Ben is suffering such stress that he’s broken out with eczema. His wife, Jess (Ashley Garlick) is with child. As a marriage counselor, she maintains a professional cool and tries to get the older couple to open up with their feelings, while the sons have gone ballistic over the state of affairs. But she finally cracks and joins the hostility when she concludes that the men treat Nancy like she’s nothing. Nancy verifies that this feeling has been a cause of her building resentment. She relates a confirming metaphor about being belittled, which her father had taught her while rowing on a lake. Meanwhile, cracks in Ben and Jess’s communication appear.
But that’s just the beginning. Many incidents enrich the proceedings – a chance meeting that Brian makes with a young man, Tommy (Matthew Kropschot); a visit from a ditsy foot-in-mouth friend Carla (Judith Miller), who shares advice about good vibrations; and an accident that causes further disruption to the chaos. Wohl’s excellent script explores many aspects of character and family relationships that ring true, particularly those that create fissures.
Under Allison F. Rich’s direction, action and interaction are crisp. The only hesitations are intended pauses that are used to great effect. The acting corps could not be better. An ensemble of seven actors from the first tier of the Bay Area’s outstanding acting pool are at the top of their games, extracting every drop of value from the playwright’s words. They are supported by high quality production values. Steve Schoenbeck’s outstanding sound design includes a pop and rock soundtrack that relates to the action and will leave the audience humming, especially those in the same age group as Bill and Nancy. Maurice Vercoutere’s lighting enhances the dramatic incidents and Robert Pickering’s scenic design.
Two final points to note – one is that I totally enjoyed the play, and the second is that its nature is farcical, which I often don’t like. However, it is fair to say that viewers not disposed to broad humor will find some characters, particularly the sons and Carla (though in a brief appearance), to be one dimensional and overwrought and elements of the comedy to be sophomoric. Most of us will find it a fun ride that also has significant meaning.
“Grand Horizons,” written by Bess Wohl, is produced by San Jose Stage, and plays in their theater at 490 South First Street, San Jose, CA through April 30, 2023.