A once-intimate relationship unravels; at the same time, two young people discover love. In any show this contrast in the two love stories would be striking. In the Harvard-Radcliffe Dramatic Club’s production of “The Last Five Years,” it carried an even heavier weight, as the two couples were one and the same. Depicting the events that lead to a failed marriage between the play’s only two characters, writer Jamie (Joe Viola ’17, Boston Conservatory) and actress Cathy (Julia I. Biedry ’17), the musical presented two narratives side-by-side: One starts as their romance blossoms while the other begins at the very end of their relationship. Although this distinct form of storytelling might normally present difficulties for the cast and crew, “The Last Five Years,” which ran April 2-5 at the Adams Pool Theater, ultimately transcended any of the potential challenges of its script to create a production of masterful acting, staging, and music that reflected the trials of a disconnected love.
The musical’s narrative style—in which the characters rarely interact with each other and instead sing alternating soliloquies—demanded a high degree of deftness and precision from the actors. They met the challenge with gusto. Biedry and Viola gave strong performances that brimmed with emotion. This effect was emphasized by the production’s heavy focus on the minute details in the actors’ expressions and actions. During the opening song, “Still Hurting,” Biedry emoted her character’s pain at her marriage’s failure through teary eyes and expressive eyebrows that raised at key moments of frustration in the song. The impact of Biedry’s performance was further enhanced by Eva S. Monroe ’18’s phenomenal lighting design; the stage was shrouded in darkness, except for a sole spotlight on Biedry that highlighted even the most minute changes in her visage. For his part, Viola matched Biedry in demonstrative skill. When he entered on stage at the beginning of “A Miracle Would Happen/When You Come Home to Me,” his aggravated look and a tap of his wedding ring finger on a beer bottle indicated his frustration at being unable to pursue women after marriage, even before he sang. Such powerful acting allowed the performers to bring their characters and the turbulent emotions in their relationship to life, despite being unable to interact with each other.
The force of Viola and Biedry’s performances was strengthened by their powerful singing. The two hit their high pitches almost perfectly and drew out their notes with ease and intensity. Their vitality was matched by the orchestra that accompanied them—reflecting the sentiments on stage, they duplicated the actors’ sudden crescendos and changes in tone perfectly. Most notable was the production’s music director, Melanie J. Rucinski ’15, on the piano. During Biedry’s part in “A Miracle Would Happen/When You Come Home to Me,” Rucinski’s playing complemented Biedry’s character’s shifting emotions. As Biedry sang her character’s thoughts about the audition, the piano produced a harsh, terser sound; the music grew slower and lighter as she made the instantaneous shift to singing her audition piece, a love song.
The overall accomplished execution created a production that poignantly dramatized the motifs of detachment and disunion—a theme already implied by the narrative structure but effectively reinforced by the production’s staging by director Steve Kunis ’17. The set, designed by Aidan C. Campbell ’17, was simple: a bed, located center stage, framed by a wood-paneled room and a white-walled space. This layout created a spatial divide between the actors; Biedry and Viola performed on their respective sides, making the detachment between the two more evident. When the actors were in a scene together, such as in “The Schmuel Song” and “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” the non-speaking actor—Biedry in both of these instances—had her back turned to the audience. This blocking decision hid Biedry’s expressions, producing a sense of distance from her and her character. As Jamie’s timeline moved towards his marriage’s demise in “If I Didn’t Believe in You,” Viola, too, sang to Biedry’s back, suggesting his isolation was the same as the audience’s. Contrasted with their open postures during “The Schmuel Song,” which occurred during a moment when their love was blossoming, this blocking choice made the growing fracture in the couple’s relationship more evident. In this way, the production projected the growing disconnection that the characters felt within their relationships beyond the actors’ performances and into the staging itself.
Ultimately, HRDC’s production was a testament to the power of expressive actors, an adroit orchestra, and thoughtful staging. Through these combined forces, the performance skillfully studied the complexities of love and probed into the lack of understanding that can result in the destruction of a once-thriving relationship. The result was a show that surpassed its potentially difficult source material to create a product both evocative and reflective.
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