Where: Goodman Theatre Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through Oct. 21
By ANNE SPISELMAN
I’m not usually a fan of one-person shows, but the performances David Cale has given at Goodman Theatre over the last 30 years are exceptions. Cale is a mesmerizing storyteller who weaves together narratives that are both complex in their specificity and universal in their themes.
The world premiere of “We’re Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time” arguably is the apex of his artistry (so far). Developed partly at Goodman’s New Stages Festival, the 90-minute musical memoir directed here by Robert Falls mines Cale’s childhood for shocking tale of love, loss, regret, escape, and acceptance.
Birdcages hanging from the stage at the beginning (set design by Kevin Depinet) subtly set the tone, but mostly Cale works in a darkened space with only a stool and a couple of microphones as props. Jennifer Tipton’s lighting helps delineate changes of scene and intermittently illuminates the quintet of excellent musicians led on piano by music director Matthew Dean Marsh, who arranged and co-composed the songs with Cale. His singing voice is as haunting and emotionally fraught as the music and lyrics, which tap the American Songbook, Joni Mitchell, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, and a whole lot more.
The events unfold in Luton, the gritty industrial town about 30 miles from London where Cale grew up. Calling it the only Northern town in the South of England, he tempers his basically unhappy account with just enough humor to lighten the mood. Even a few of the songs are witty, among them “All The Smart Girls” which has them listening to Joni Mitchell even as he, a young gay man, discovers his affinity for girls for the first time.
He starts with how he built an “animal hospital” in a backyard shed, then added an aviary that eventually housed hundreds of colorful tropical birds, many of them finches. We soon learn that this hobby and singing in his bedroom were his ways of getting away from the terrible screaming matches between his parents. Meanwhile, his younger brother Simon built model airplanes for the same reason. But part of Cale’s brilliance is the way he returns to the metaphor of the birds at the end and ties everything together.
When he’s not being himself, Cale becomes his father, mother, brother, and overbearing paternal grandfather, owner of a major Luton hat factory. Each tells his or her story from a unique point of view, and the shifting perspectives have a Rashomon-like effect particularly concerning a violent incident and its aftermath.
While Cale’s father, Ron, turns into an in effectual alcoholic who neglects his family and is bullied by his father, most heart-wrenching portrait is of David’s mother, Barbara. We feel her longing, disappointment with her life, and failure to realize her potential as she tells us about how she gave up a promising design career at a rival hat factory to marry Ron, only to be forced to switch to a dull job in his father’s factory and to have her marriage and life go downhill from there. When she tells David that he will one day recognize what she could have been and that she will live on in him, it is quite moving because that’s what is happening in front of us.
The other main thread is how Cale gets out of Luton and goes to New York to become a performer. Underscoring this is an exploration of the ways we all invent our own lives and become actors in them. It surfaces strongly when he reacts to a horrific scene while looking in a mirror and observes that he feels like he’s in a movie that he’s directing as well as performing in.
I must confess that I’m a little mystified about why Cale’s work appeals to me so much. When he comes out onstage, he looks like an ordinary guy you might encounter on the street without even noticing. But then he starts talking, and even though he’s very low key, you’re soon sucked in and wondering what will happen next.