A world premiere documentary play about the 2013 Boston Marathon.
It's not every day that an entire community comes together to put on a show. But Finish Line, a documentary play about the 2013 marathon bombing, which had its world premiere Wednesday evening at the Shubert Theatre, is the lovechild of hundreds of Bostonians who believe in the value of this story and see the value in celebrating the resilience of the human spirit.
Specifically, resilience born out of the tragedy of April 15, 2013, when two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston marathon, killing three and wounding 264. Director Joey Frangieh and cocreator Lisa Rafferty were aided by a team of 22 who interviewed 94 people with firsthand accounts of that day. Thirty-two people transcribed those interviews, which yielded thousands of pages of script that Frangieh and Rafferty spent two and a half years editing.
A coproduction of Boch Center and Boston Theater Company, the result of this crowd-sourced labor of love is underwhelming considering all of the time that went into its creation. Finish Line features the stories of 14 people, yet only a fraction of the stories carry any impactful emotional weight in the piece.
The show unfolds in a series of direct-to-the-audience monologues, where the cast hardly interacts. Most times, the actor exits soon after delivering a monologue, contributing to the feeling of detached rigidity that comes from hearing one after another. In this way, Finish Line comes off more as a commemorative staged reading than a fully realized play. There may have been more of an impact if the cast remained together, telling their stories intermittently, as a unit. (This was done brilliantly in Trans Scripts earlier this season at American Repertory Theater.)
Brad Jensen, a teacher who ran the marathon that day (played by an appealing Sam Tanabe), starts things off lightly, comparing the start of the race to a serious dance call, his iPod loaded up with show tunes. The group of characters also includes John Tlumacki (Danny Bolton), a Boston Globe photojournalist who documented the bombing and its aftermath; Paula McLaughlin, a charity coordinator played by Karen MacDonald; Maria Stephanos (Paula Plum), a news anchor who was near the finish line with her two kids; Lee Ann Yanni (Tonasia Jones), a physical therapist wounded in the attack; Dr. Jane Montgomery, a physician (a memorable Katy Sullivan); Harry McEnerny (Greg Maraio), a Beth Israel EMT who recalls the paranoia and distrust following the bombings with affecting pathos; Dr. David R. King (Lewis D. Wheeler), a surgeon at MGH who marvels at man's ability to persist; Justin Stratton (Hoopman), an EMT; Liz Norden (MacDonald), a nanny whose two sons both lost their legs; Carol Downing (Plum), a massage therapist whose daughter lost her leg; Officer Franklin (Omar Robinson), a Boston police officer; and Erika Brannock (Amie Lytle,) an amusing preschool teacher whose students' support following the loss of her leg proved life saving.
While all of these stories have value, the real words of these heroes are treated, perhaps, a little too preciously and could have used some altering. As it stands now, this production feels less like a work of theatrical prowess and more like a well-intentioned, but woefully underwhelming, museum piece. Also, the stagnant staging borders on mundane. Whatever poignancy the show works up to in its final quarter is voided by ending the evening with a treacly (and out of place) original song called "Rise."
The set design is restricted to hundreds of light bulbs seemingly suspended in mid-air, forming a wall of light behind the actors. It's effective, as is the lighting (Jeff Adelberg designed both). There is also a screen suspended above the stage on which the name and title of the person speaking is projected. This is helpful, but it detracts from the magic of the set.
Where Finish Line does fare best is when the stories of Liz Norden and Carol Downing, two mothers who both had children who lost their legs that day, are woven together to heart stopping affect. Karen MacDonald and Paula Plum play the mothers, whose performances very nearly justify Finish Line's existence. But it is problematic that they are the only two performances that appear to have been shaped by any real character work or direction.
I won't soon forget MacDonald, voice quivering with anger and sadness, explaining that her sons may have accepted their fate but that she will never get over it. Plum, too, is wrenching in Downing's life-affirming realization that it's not the tragedy that left the biggest mark on her, but the outpouring of kindness that she received from perfect strangers. This moment does, however, illustrate the power of what the show could have been if all of the stories on stage had been given similar treatment.
Finish Line exudes an opportunistic air that makes it feel rather too much like a vanity project than a tribute to the heroes and survivors of the day. For all the humanity and vitality in these stories, it's regrettable that the final product is so lifelessly synthetic.