Wakey Wakey

To wake, perhaps to dream

Will Eno's "Wakey Wakey," at Portland Playhouse, ponders life and death but drifts into what feels like nothing so important.

Someone is born, and someone dies.  We know this, of course, as the essential arc of any human life. But we also tend to take particular note of these events when they occur to those around us, as part of the cyclical arc, if you will, of extended families; the way the succession of generations seems to bunch its milestones together, the baby’s arrival hard upon the grandparents passing.

Such is the common — though one shouldn’t say ordinary — life circumstance that inspired playwright Will Eno to write Wakey Wakey, being staged through Oct. 21 at Portland Playhouse under the direction of Gretchen Corbett.

Wordplay of many sorts, sometimes direct and jokey, sometimes remarkably subtle and layered, is a major component of Eno’s writing style, and I’m guessing the title of this play is a play on notions of awakening to the world, being wakeful in it, and being ritually remembered after we’ve left it. Whatever the case, the play itself is a very peculiar sort of last testament.

In Will Eno’s “Wakey Wakey,” Michael O’Connell (front) heads gently into that good night, comforted by Nikki Weaver. Photo: Brud Giles.

Michael O’Connell stars here as Guy (not to be confused with the protagonist of Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago staged in Portland this summer; that guy’s called “Man”). When the lights first go up, he’s face down on the floor, clad in pajama bottoms. “Is it now?” he cries out to no one in particular. “I thought I had more time!”

I imagine everyone feels that way, when the time comes that they don’t have much more. But it’s not as if Guy hasn’t had some warning. He’s in such a scrupulously innocuous, inoffensively drab place — pale gray walls with white trim, a wall calendar of scenic photography, a few potted plants on the floor, and several large brown packing boxes — that it couldn’t be much other than an anteroom in a hospital or senior center. Or, as those opening lines suggest, a hospice facility.

Once he’s had a chance to gather himself, put on a bit more clothing and get seated in his wheelchair, he talks directly to the audience. He doesn’t tell us his life story, or make any grand pronouncements, or espouse some sage philosophy. He alludes, early on, to “the secret plans and ideas of people that time ran out on,” and tells us that we’re “here to say goodbye, and maybe hopefully to get better at saying hello.”

He doesn’t get much more specific than that. He thumbs through flash cards, reading prompts from some of them, admitting he can’t recall what he’d intended others to be about. He shows some slides, makes some self-referential comments about the theatrical setting and technical elements, tosses off little aphoristic life lessons and light-and-shadow bon mots (“Time is your friend. And time is your enemy. You can decide which. For awhile.”) He makes asides that work like little mirrors on his own thought process (“A joke would be so funny right now,” he says amid a pause). It’s a Will Eno play, so a linear story or a readily reducible message aren’t the point.

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DramaWatch: In the wake of words with Will Eno

"Wakey, Wakey" at Portland Playhouse finds humor in matters of life and death; "The Color Purple" keeps it simple; and the new Summit Theatre starts its climb

“People talk about matters of Life and Death. But it’s really just Life, isn’t it. When you think about it.”

So says Guy, the main character in the Will Eno play Wakey, Wakey, which on Saturday opens the 2018-’19 Portland Playhouse season. Guy might or might not be meant as a name, and in any case the fellow is — much like the one referred to only as “Man” in the script of Eno’s Title and Deed, which Imago staged in August — a stand-in for any or all of us. An Everyguy.

Hello/goodbye: Michael O’Connell as Guy in Will Eno’s “Wakey, Wakey” at Portland Playhouse. Photo: Brud Giles.

Like most of Eno’s Everyguys, who speak their fractured piece directly in monologues such as Title and Deed and Thom Pain (based on nothing), or serve as the bemused center of ensemble pieces such as Middletown, Guy talks about life from a lot of different angles. More than the rest, though, this guy gives the sense that he’s approaching that final, most blunt angle. And still, this being Eno, that angle, too, bends around, again and again, to unexpectedly beautiful glimmers of life.

As he puts it early on, “We’re here to say goodbye and maybe hopefully also get better at saying hello.”

This should be a terrific way for the Playhouse to say hello to its season, what with Michael O’Connell (who has assayed Eno before to fine effect, in Middletown and The Realistic Joneses, both for Third Rail Rep) starring, joined by Nikki Weaver and directed by Gretchen Corbett. That team is a good bet to find the varied, mingled tones of piercing humor and wry pathos in what is Eno’s gentlest, most warm-hearted script yet.

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