Since I’ve spent a good deal of quality time in Boulder, Colorado and have gotten to know many natives—some of whom have died since we became acquainted—I was curious about what Linda Faigao-Hall might have to say in her two-act-two-hour-explicitly-titled Dying in Boulder on the subject of Boulder deaths.
Her focal interest is dying Boulder citizen Jane (Bernadette Quigley), who’s converted to Buddhism and wants to succumb in accordance with the religion’s pertinent tenets. As it happens, this leave-taking isn’t like any I’ve known in the city, but I’m not surprised at the choice. It’s not unusual for a town where the Naropa Institute and the Shambala Center are both found. And this is not to mention the Celestial Seasonings headquarters, where perhaps “Celestial” is an oblique reference to Buddhist philosophy.
In my eagerness to learn about Boulder passing and, more specifically, going out Buddhist-style, I got more than I bargained for from Dying in Boulder—and somewhat less. The same can’t be said for Jane’s sister Lydia (Jan Leslie Harding), a successful actress now past 40 and experiencing fewer opportunities.
She’s arrived in Boulder from New York to see Jane through the final days, which she’s been informed by Jane’s Filipino husband Bayani (Fenton Li) and nine-months-pregnant daughter Nikki (Mallory Ann Wu) are definitely final days. Also soon on hand to guide her through assigned duties as “death coordinator” is another Buddhist convert, now an apparently ordained monk, Max (Michael Rabe).
Lydia isn’t game for any of this. A lapsed Episcopalian, she recoils from some of her assignments. For one thing, as death coordinator she must wash, dry and dab Jane’s entire body with cotton balls to close all the pores. That’s to keep the soul from premature departure. Bayani, Nikki and Max will accept nothing less from Lydia. Neither, of course, does Jane, who begins refusing to take meds but still has more energy than might be assumed of someone in her condition. Lydia believes that Jane’s demands are actually retribution for past sisterly oversights—one being her failing to send $20,000 she’d promised for a homeopathic remedy involving beeswax.
Lydia isn’t far from wrong about a revenge that would appear to be at odds with Buddhist teachings, for Faigao-Hall has it in mind to say something about religion quite different from where she initially looked to be headed. At first, it felt as if she were writing a play concerning sisters in which one of the siblings is inexplicably resistant to accommodating the other’s last wishes, as other family members and a friend try to assist in any way possible.
Instead, Faigao-Hall gives the unexpected impression she’s gunning for religions, no matter which. Lydia, see above, is a lapsed Episcopalian. Bayani is a Catholic, who may or may not be lapsed but doesn’t appear to be practicing. Instead he builds stone totems in his Boulder yard. Even worse, Buddhism—usually a respected Eastern religion In the West—is trounced as well. It’s revealed that Max took up his path because he hated Reagan or Nixon (which former president is left up in the air). On top of that Jane shouts that she looked to Buddhism because she hated “you,” meaning Lydia. Some impetus for getting religion, no?
Indeed, Faigao-Hall shows her hand the more she brings Jane on in the hopeless present and in flashbacks, the worst of which has her drug addiction on one occasion leaving LSD peanut butter balls where 10-year-old Nikki can find and ingest them. Jane, it eventuates, is a recovering drug addict and recovering alcoholic, who has unfortunately retained what’s commonly known as her “alcoholic personality.”
Jane completely ceases to be a sympathetic figure, but where does that leave Lydia, who’s evidently meant to be the focal character. When Jennifer Hill’s lights go up on Yu-Hsuan Chen’s version of a very authentic Boulder home (is it the Hillside area?), it’s Lydia who’s standing in the light. Furthermore, at fade-out it’s both Bayani and, more significantly, Lydia spotlighted. But if she’s the one with whose dramatic arc we’re meant to be interested, she’s not intriguing enough. She stands up for herself intermittently but not sufficiently. For all her protestations she remains wan.
The most arresting Dying in Boulder character is Nikki. Whereas Bayani is likable as he handles household chores and Max unknowingly quaffs a strong morphine drink at one point and then snoozes in full view of the audience for a long enough time to elicit audience sympathy for actor Rabe’s predicament, Nikki is the one for whom the audience pulls. Under Ian Morgan’s direction, Wu is properly caring, intelligent, argumentative and intriguingly conflicted. Morgan does well by all the other characters, but they stand up less well to scrutiny.
Perhaps a play is valid taking the attitude that all religions are worth little, and that therefore none is better nor worse than the other: take your lame choice. But Faigao-Hall’s Dying in Boulder only modestly fills the bill.
Dying in Boulder opened March 3, 2019, at La Mama and runs through March 17. Tickets and information: lamama.org