Local playwright Terry Smith is known for his campy murder mysteries. With M: From Failure to Freedom, now in a limited run at StageCoach Theatre Company, Smith takes on the somber yet rhapsodic work of unraveling clues surrounding the suicide of his wife of 31 years.
Presented in cooperation with and benefiting the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, M is a raw letter from beyond the grave from Melisande, nicknamed “M,” who was herself part of the DC theater community. The deeply personal, unvarnished script also serves as an inquest 10 years on, attempting to make sense of what most consider a senseless act.
Director Barbara Carpenter knew Melisande Smith in life and recalled being costumed by her in previous shows. Admitting it was a heavy mantle to bring this story to life, she nonetheless managed to lay the spadework for a sorrowful but playful tableau, in which robust actors Allen McRae (Terry/Narrator) and Leah Daily (Melisande/Narrator) cohabitate, commiserate, and, ultimately, achieve an uneasy peace.
To be or not to be — that’s truly the question here. To wit, the two-act, two-person play is compellingly structured as separate soliloquies. It begins at the end, with Terry’s discovery of M’s body, and ends by tracing the beginnings of her self-discovery. The actors repeatedly cross a paper-thin fourth wall, interacting and self-reflecting.
Daily is especially gifted at displaying all sides of a splintered, untethered soul, refracted in a shattered mirror. She enters as an apparition, stoic and angelic, and morphs from a darling, wounded child — whom her mother often resented or ignored — to a desperate, deliberate shell of a woman convinced she’s invisible. Yet Daily imbues M with such glorious presence, and a sparkling laugh, that even those who never knew her instantly miss her. By contrast, McRae maintains a surprisingly even keel, processing tragedy upon tragedy, even the stress of being a murder suspect, with his cool, disarming grace (and plaintive, baby-blue eyes). Both actors lob dollops of laugh lines, which, Smith explained at intermission, are interspersed to keep the audience from “being beat up for two hours.”
Original music by sound designer-operator Fred Muller adds vital texture. Ranging from a spa-like trance vibe (M worked as a massage therapist, among other professions) to progressive soul, strains of a movie-worthy soundtrack enhance the tense and maudlin moments. As a final testament, an achingly beautiful song, with vocals by Susanna Todd and producer-stage manager Kat Brais, is especially effective at plucking the heartstrings.
Lighting, co-designed by Smith and Amy Hines Bates and executed by Hines Bates and Torie Dunlap, produces a synesthesia effect, connecting the visual crisis to a pulsating beat, and hovering between earthly realism and ethereal haze. Smart cues also help transform the intimacy of a home and kitchen table into a hospital room and a funeral parlor. And the uncredited come-as-you-are costuming — McRae in polo, dockers, and sneakers; Daily in slacks, slip-ons, and a babydoll tunic top — befits the notion of “ordinary people” enduring extraordinary events that perhaps stem from a universal (ordinary) longing to belong.
With only two actors to work with, Carpenter relies on vocal dynamics and “space work” — a technique of creating an environment using one’s imagination — to help them populate the story with detectives, medical teams, children, a teacher, and a principal villain: the mother/mother-in-law. This seemed an odd narrative choice until it became clear that the void of characters onstage accentuates a yawning loneliness — not only M’s but that of Terry in the initial aftermath of their September 11, 2013, tragedy.
Much of the storytelling is drawn from 15 journals Smith found while sorting through his wife’s belongings, and the mono/dialogue occasionally reads like a therapy session. Still, it’s hardly therapeutic. Along with the producers’ ample trigger warnings, here’s another: It’s depressing. Free tissues offered at the box office came in handy for patrons on opening night — many of whom knew M in life, or at least believed they did.
And because it’s human nature to fill in details we don’t know — including what’s ultimately unknowable — the show asks a lot of the audience. If you’re looking for answers or justification as to why someone who seemingly has it all would choose to end their life — the December tragedy of the massively talented Stephen “tWitch” Boss, known as Ellen DeGeneres’ sidekick dancer and DJ, springs to mind — this show will likely fail you.
Instead, Smith’s brave act of catharsis gives voice to those among us who illegitimately feel like failures; offers insight into recognizing when someone might be asking for help, even in a roundabout way; and, by magnifying the inner darkness humans closely guard, assures all there is no shame in bringing it, at last, to light.
Running Time: Two hours and 10 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
M: From Failure to Freedom plays through May 21, 2023, at StageCoach Theatre Company, located at 20937 Ashburn Road, Suites 115 and 120, Ashburn, VA. Tickets are $25 for in-person seating or livestreaming. Or you can call the box office at 571-477-9444.
The program for M: From Failure to Freedom is online here.
COVID Safety: All guests may choose to wear masks while inside the theater, but it is not required. See StageCoach Theatre’s complete COVID protocols here.
M: From Failure to Freedom
Written by Terry Smith
Produced by Kat Brais
Directed by Barbara Carpenter
Cast: Allen McRae, Leah Daily