Like Lulu, June is intelligently no-nonsense, and that's how Cox plays her. You're immediately fond of both June and Cox for being so lovably bright. For June, "bright" has a couple of meanings, one of which involves her career: She's a lighting designer, and she responds to the world in terms of how it's lit. Practically the first things she talks about -- after matter-of-factly relaying her cancer diagnosis -- are the light sources in Caravaggio's "Taking of Christ." Then dramatist Lavery finds reasons to have her mention lighting right through to her last luminous appearance, a moving theatrical coup that won't be divulged here.
Because June negotiates a few of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's five stages of grief over death and because, in her final stage, she asks three close friends to assist her in a calculated demise, Last Easter could be described as a cross between Wit and Whose Life is It Anyway? It isn't that easily pigeon-holed, however. For while this play is the story of June's final year or so, it's also the story of how her trio of buddies tends to her. In other words, this is a wise work about the gifts of friendship, about friends becoming family. Gash (the gloriously swishy Jeffrey Carlson), Leah (the cute-as-a-button Clea Lewis), and Joy (the stunning, intense Florencia Lozano) contribute immeasurably to June's life, and she contributes to theirs -- which is why, when June leaves the play, it's not quite time for it to end.
Just as a good deal of the second act is given over to the chums' decision to help June die, much of the first act is given over to their helping her live. Gash, Leah, and Joy take their pal on a trip to France with a hidden agenda: They plan a stop at Lourdes for a recovery miracle. Although they execute their plan, they don't reap the desired results; June sees the light, but it's not the heavenly glow that accompanies Bernadette's Madonna. Instead, the realistic June, who admits to wishing for a miracle despite her doubts, has a clearer vision of her death. This sequence -- directed by Doug Hughes (who never misses) and played beautifully by the three friends and Jeffrey Scott Miller as the ghost of Joy's late boyfriend -- is truly luminescent.
Since June is a lighting designer, Joy an actress, Leah is a prop designer, and Gash is prone to imagining musical comedy scenarios, Lavery is also penning a valentine to the theater. Frequently, these we're-in-showbiz exercises come off as solipsistic. Last Summer doesn't; it's about big hearts, and one of them belongs to Lavery, whose heart is big enough to surmount the self-serving attitude. A play about a lighting designer had to be a plum assignment for a lighting designer, and Clifton Taylor has great fun with it. Lights of all sorts, including a menorah, flick on and off during the play and eventually become a focus of attention in their own right. Hugh Landwehr designed June's cluttered studio, where much of the action takes place; Catherine Zuber did the costumes, which include a nun's headpiece for Gash (don't ask; see for yourself). The original music and the sound design is by Fabian Obispo.
Though I wasn't an advocate of Lavery's recent Frozen (which is now under the shadow of plagiarism), I'm happy to report that there's a profound charm to Last Easter. The play takes death seriously. Just as seriously, and comedically, it celebrates the afterlife conferred through friends' memories.
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