11th Hour Theatre Company gives Philadelphia’s theatergoers an early holiday gift with its poignant staging of Adam Gwon’s chamber musical Ordinary Days.
Set in New York City in 2006, the show’s four characters are all 20-somethings with big dreams, but are uncertain about how to attain them. Warren (Steve Pacek, in his best performance yet) is a wandering writer currently house-sitting for a jailed artist friend. Deb (the excellent Alex Keiper) is a grad student with dreams of publishing a book, and Jason (the vocally gifted Michael Philip O’Brien) and Claire (a sublime Whitney Bashor) are a young couple headed toward either marital bliss or devastating heartbreak.
They are a likeable group, but in general there is nothing extraordinary about any of the four. Yet while there are no shocking plot twists, Gwon discovers—and shines light on—the drama in everyday life. The characters’ plainness, along with the cast’s engaging, natural performances allow us to empathize fully with these four New Yorkers regardless of their—or our own—age or gender.
Performed with just a few props (boxes containing the characters’ possessions) and no set to speak of, Director Joe Calarco’s production relies fully on Gwon’s music and the performers’ skill. The less-is-more approach pays off marvelously, and for all its simplicity, this quietly compelling musical moves us in profound and unexpected ways.
Locally, Calarco is best known for producing a number of visually dazzling productions at Philadelphia Theatre Company including The Light in the Piazza, which captured the Barrymore Award for outstanding production of a musical. In addition to creating indelible visuals, Calarco is also enormously adept at managing time and space.
In order to immerse the audience entirely in the world of the play taking place on stage, most theaters go to great lengths to isolate the performance space from the world outside. Calarco takes the opposite approach. By rearranging the seating, revealing the Skybox’s original brick walls, and at key moments removing the black drapes that typically cloak the windows, the Skybox is transformed into an urban jungle. We easily imagine that we are there with the characters walking down Broadway, hailing a cab on Fifth Avenue, strolling through Central Park or admiring Monet’s masterpieces at the Met.
Rather than being confined to a stage, the actors perform throughout the entire space. Except for the rare moments when they sit with the audience, the actors are in motion throughout the show’s 80 minutes.
Without a single sound or special lighting effect, the production magically summons the hustle and bustle of a great metropolis. The environmental staging is essential in allowing New York City to be fully realized as the story’s fifth character. Like the four human characters, it too is in a state of constant change.
The usual criticism of Gwon’s music is that it lacks variety. Yet the similarity of the songs works in the show’s favor this time, creating a distinct mood that suggests the mix of anticipation and fear shared by the foursome. You won’t leave the theater humming any of the tunes, but Gwon’s music (which recalls the early work of composer Jason Robert Brown) achieves a startling level of emotional complexity. With lyrics that are often witty, the songs do far more than just move the story along; in the touching penultimate number “I’ll be Here” (magnificently performed by Bashor), the music is capable of reducing us to tears.
11th Hour’s production of Ordinary Days shows us not only the many (and often unnoticeable) ways we connect to other people, but it also may inspire you to connect more fully with your own hopes, fears and desires.
Through Dec. 18. $15-$30. Skybox at the Adrienne, 2030 Sansom St. 11thhourtheatrecompany.org