How old were you when you realized that, in life, the center cannot hold? When The Great Moment begins, our narrator Sarah is 37, “the age my mother was when I first realized that my mother had an age.” Her grandfather Max is 98, son Evan is three, and time is the elephant in every room.
Anna Ziegler’s world premiere play, now running at Seattle Rep and helmed by artistic director Braden Abraham, is startling in its simplicity: an ordinary (if upper class) family bushwhacking its way through birth, death and the passage of time in all its stubborn predictability. The heavily autobiographical work is set during a period of Ziegler’s own life marked by the decline of her beloved grandfather and the birth of her second baby, while her older son grows from toddler to kid.
Sarah is a playwright (slash Ziegler avatar), played with staggering honesty by Alexandra Tavares. Also in our story are Max (Greg Mullavey); Sarah’s mother, Susan (Kathryn Grody); and her father, Jim, and son, Evan, both played by Eugene Lee. (Don’t worry, Sarah’s direct address will make sure you know who everyone is, and keep you anchored in space and time.)
Max marvels at the miracle of smartphones, sings his favorite American Songbook classics, and says, “getting old sucks.” Susan frets, Jim faces retirement, Evan asks the bizarrely trenchant questions unique to small children: “When happens when forever ends? What time will it be tomorrow?”
Throughout the two-ish years (and 85 minutes) of the play, Sarah navigates the mundanities of life, heading off passive-aggressive backseat parenting, answering Evans’ incessant inquiries, balancing kids and work, writing down everything Max says in an effort to freeze him in time and memory. Her desire to dig her heels in, to somehow slow down the speeding train of her life is an act of understandable futility. Don’t we all wish to control time, to be older when we’re young, to stay young as we see old age approaching?
Abraham and Ziegler previously partnered on the Rep’s 2013 production of her play Photograph 51, a collaboration that led to the commission that created The Great Moment. Ziegler’s work focuses on people at turning points in their lives, and her decision to turn her narrative scalpel on herself is an interesting one. Time is a personal experience, even people are a personal experience; days that fly by for parents are endless to children, a parent to one person is grandparent to another. With the exception of Sarah, the characters have the sort of flatness that comes with a familial point of view—after all, how complete is anyone’s vision of a beloved grandparent? Even the design elements seem designed to get out of Sarah’s way, from Catherine Cornell’s single, homey set to Robert Aguilar’s tranquil lighting and Obadiah Eaves’ contemplative score and sound design.
Certainly, I’m demographically predisposed to resonate to The Great Moment like an emotional tuning fork, and it’s easy to assume that what rings personally true will ring universally true. There’s a fine line between autobiographical exploration and navel-gazing, and occasionally the play’s conventions wear thin; positioning Sarah’s poetic ruminations to the audience side-by-side with Evan’s endless questions to her is at first an illuminating parallel but deteriorates into heavy-handed stodginess by the third or fourth deployment. Even so, the feeling was always one of discovery rather than myopia, thanks in large part to Tavares’ luminous performance.
Ziegler’s hardly breaking new ground here, but she’s telling her story honestly and beautifully, and wisely doesn’t gin up “conflict” for the sake of an inciting incident or whatever dramaturgical boxes playwrights are supposed to tick. Is real life boring? Yes. Is it also the most incredible experience—not to mention the only experience—any of us will ever have? Yes again. Learning to see or appreciate that in a new way is no small feat, and I’ll take all the help I can get.
The Great Moment runs through November 17 at Seattle Repertory Theatre. Prices and times vary, for full schedule visit seattlerep.org.