Review: Living Forever Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be in Eternal Life Part 1

Nathan Alan Davis’s world premiere play runs at the Wilma Theater.

Brandon J. Pierce stands with his arms out wide looking joyously up into the sky. He is in a sweat suit in various shades of blue and an orange stripe. Sarah Gliko looks on with him standing just behind his right side, still in her white feathers, now in orange kitten heels. To Peirce’s left side, his parents sit on a bean bag chair, looking surprised. Jennifer Kidwell is in an all-navy business casual suit and Steven Rishard is in a light blue robe, underwear and slippers.
Sarah Gliko, Brandon J. Pierce, Jennifer Kidwell, and Steven Rishard appear in Nathan Alan Davis’s Eternal Life Part 1, directed by Morgan Green, at the Wilma Theater.
(© Johanna Austin)

No one asks to be born, and at one point or another, every person feels afraid to die. Playwright Nathan Alan Davis wrestles with this conundrum in Eternal Life Part 1, a trippy and transfixing world premiere from the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia. Although devised as a meditation on the possible prevention of death, Davis takes as his prime subject a question posed by one of his characters: “What is the point of all the life that happens along the way?”

Of course, shuffling off this mortal coil cannot be avoided. The enormous robin’s egg-blue coffin that sits in the corner of Matt Saunders’s ultramodern, antiseptic set serves as a constant reminder of that. But that doesn’t stop the people who populate Davis’s futuristic yet familiar world from staving off the inevitable in increasingly creative ways. Like most good works of science fiction, the play deals with human emotions pitched to operatic levels, and even its most outlandish moments are recognizably human.

Jennifer Kidwell in wedding dress holding wildflower bouquet shooting Steven Rishard a look, furrowing her brow. Steven Richard in undone wedding suit and bowtie looking up mid-sentence. Lindsey Smiling looks at Steven Richard from behind a fir tree dressed in a camouflage suit coat.
Jennifer Kidwell, Lindsey Smiling, and Steven Rishard appear in Nathan Alan Davis’s Eternal Life Part 1, directed by Morgan Green, at the Wilma Theater.
(© Johanna Austin)

So, how can we stay alive forever? An affluent couple, called only Man and Woman (Steven Rishard and Jennifer Kidwell), start by deciding to have a child — procreation being the most classic form of self-preservation. That child, Junior (Brandon J. Pierce), grows up to be a brilliant astronaut and engineer who deploys on a mission to create a “Super Earth” in outer space. As a teenager, though, he falls into the familiar rebellious traps, mocking his parents’ armchair liberalism: his mother’s passion for eco-friendly gardening, his father’s goal to turn Greenland into a “carbon negative country.”

There’s also a mysterious Gray-Bearded Man (Lindsay Smiling) who offers a potion that promises to extend the human lifespan by 50 years, no questions asked. (Naturally, Woman buys a case.) The play’s de facto narrator is a Goose (Sarah Gliko) who stalks Man and Woman’s country property, doling out the wisdom of the ages and warning against the hubristic impulse to play God. She’s not really a Goose, actually — a lesser barnyard fowl, Goose is the final form into which she is willing herself to evolve.

Yes, Eternal Life Part 1 features sentient livestock acting as the voice of reason for a troubled society. It also features a family of Snowflakes who discuss philosophical concepts as they tumble through the air, a physical phenomenon approximated by having them soar around the stage on swings. (Designed to mirror the human family at the story’s center, the Snowflakes are also played by Rishard, Kidwell, and Pierce.) If this level of anthropomorphism and self-conscious wackiness sounds cloying to you, you should perhaps sit this production out. But if you do, you’ll miss Kidwell’s Mother Snowflake hilariously instructing her son on the finer points to avoid landing on a dog’s genitalia.

Jennifer Kidwell and Steven Rishard wear light blue outfits and stand facing each other, hands behind their backs, inside a white house-shaped structure with a circular blue and purple-lit window. Behind are screens projecting trees and mountains. Green grass is to the right and snow is to the left.
Jennifer Kidwell and Steven Rishard appear in Nathan Alan Davis’s Eternal Life Part 1, directed by Morgan Green, at the Wilma Theater.
(© Johanna Austin)

You’d also miss a deeply moving exploration of the reasons why living beings, intelligent or otherwise, come to fear death. In a pair of tender performances, Rishard and Kidwell foreground the regret their characters feel about their missteps throughout life, showing that even outward success can mask deep pools of unfulfilled longing. Perhaps the drive to live forever is predicated on the belief that every new day offers a chance to course-correct? And while Gliko gets hilariously physical as Goose — her very particular strut sent the audience into hysterics at the performance I attended — she also makes a compelling case for the humanity of animals.

The script loses some momentum in the second act and would work better trimmed down to 90 minutes, no intermission. Even in its current, overlong form, some strands of plot don’t totally adhere. Although Smiling is always a welcome presence, his Gray-Bearded Man often feels like a device meant only to move the action forward. (Smiling returns in the play’s final scene in a more consequential, affecting role.) The importance of environmentalism as a sustaining life force comes and goes throughout the play. The use of an Alexa-like smart home system to represent the family’s technological alienation seems overdone, although Pax Ressler gives a slyly funny voice to the device.

But at its core, this production, directed with warmth and genuine emotion by Morgan Green, reckons authentically and movingly with the flawed impulse not to die. John Lennon once sang that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” In Eternal Life Part 1, life is what happens while you’re busy trying to live forever.

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Eternal Life Part 1

Closed: April 30, 2023