Directing ‘This’ by Melissa James Gibson at Vienna Theatre Company by Tom Flatt

What’s THIS All About?

Director Tom Flatt. Photo courtesy of Vienna Theatre Company.
Director Tom Flatt. Photo courtesy of Vienna Theatre Company.

When I told people I was going to be directing This at Vienna Theatre Company, they invariably replied, “This?” with a quizzical tilt of the head.

I would go on to explain it was a wonderful new comedy about a group of friends on the cusp of 40 trying to renegotiate their lives, and then sing the praises of its writer, how witty and moving it was, and how real. But inevitably they would say, “That’s a weird title.”

Yes, This is a beautiful and very funny play with a maddeningly obscure title. But there is a method to author Melissa James Gibson’s madness. In an interview with The New York Times, she described her thinking behind the title:

“I’m fascinated by the way in which words fail…the struggle to communicate. For me ‘this’ is that which one is not dealing with, but it’s the thing that’s crying out to be dealt with in order to move on. I think that’s true of these characters. They each have a ‘this’ and they’re really stuck in different ways, and until they deal with ‘this,’ things are hard. That’s all of our lots, isn’t it? A pile of ‘this-es.’”

Any of us who have weathered the “loops that life throws you,” as a friend of mine used to say, will find much to relate to in the struggles of these characters to confront their “this-es.” And coming from someone so fascinated with the struggle to communicate, Gibson’s play is remarkably eloquent. This humanity and insight initially brought me to This, but I was also drawn to a story I seldom see on stage or screen.

It’s the story of a group of friends entering that vague terrain called “middle age.” We are used to seeing “cusp of life” movies and plays about late teens, twenty-somethings becoming thirty-somethings, and of course the mid-life crises of fifty-something red sports car buyers. But rarely do we see reflected that stage of life when childhood is gone and the dreams of who we were supposed to be shatter against the life we actually live. This is different than the mid-life crises of adults in their fifties who are left to reinvent themselves when the children are grown. No, these are people in the midst of adulthood and parenthood, keenly aware of their unease and sensing that something’s got to give, but not always sure what or why.

I was also drawn to the lead character, Jane, a poetess who can’t communicate. As someone who has always made a living with words, I know personally the alien world that grief can cast you in, and how hard it is to find your voice again. Jane’s struggle is universal, and Melissa James Gibson’s delineation of that struggle is incredibly moving and unexpectedly funny.

I love the way the play, through beautifully nuanced and lively humor, explores some of the deepest existential questions of adulthood involving children, sex, betrayal, shame, work, grief, and the eternal quest for happiness, whatever that may be.

Honesty, loss, and change are central themes of This, as is friendship. As the play demonstrates, the love and support of friends makes it possible for us to laugh at ourselves, grow, confront our “this-es,”and build meaningful lives. This is a celebration of friendship, in all its complicated, messy, life-affirming glory.

Shannon Benton and Rikki Howie in Vienna Theatre Company’s 'This' by Melissa James Gibson. Photo courtesy of Vienna Theatre Company.
Shannon Benton and Rikki Howie in Vienna Theatre Company’s ‘This’ by Melissa James Gibson. Photo courtesy of Vienna Theatre Company.

Fittingly, our production would not have been possible without the help of my many friends who came together to bring it to life, and I am grateful for their amazing generosity of spirit, commitment, artistry, and talent.

Together, we hope audiences enjoy our production of This and that it inspires them to find their own “this-es.”

This 728 x 90

This plays from January 24-February 9, 2014 at Vienna Theatre Company performing at The Vienna Community Center – 120 Cherry Street, SE, in Vienna, VA.  Purchase tickets in advance at the Vienna Community Center, or at the door prior to the show.


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