Lyric Stage’s ‘Be Here Now’ Asks: “At What Price Happiness?”

Patty, Bari and Luann at work at the fulfillment center
(Photos by Mark S. Howard)

By Shelley A. Sackett

Deborah Zoe Laufer’s deceptively profound Be Here Now opens with an almost slapstick scene. Three women (Patty and Luanne Cooper and Bari) sit on yoga mats as the blissed-out disembodied voice coaches them to look inside themselves and “let go.” Patty (Shani Farrell) and Luanne (Katherine C. Shaver), dressed appropriately in latex, comply, closing their eyes and sinking into their mats. Bari (Samantha Richert) clearly marches to a different drummer. She is fully dressed (as in a midi dress and huge coat-sweater) and keeps her eyes defiantly open, widening them at each suggestion she close them. Her face portrays the furthest state from bliss possible. This woman is irredeemably and unapologetically miserable.

Turns out she has every reason to be.

She has lost her job at a university in New York City teaching — drum roll — nihilism because she is ABD (all but dissertation). She is 17 days away from her ultimate deadline; she has been working on it eight years. And she has been having bone-crunching headaches.

Exiled to her economically depressed small hometown its small-town people, she works at a fulfillment center (which is anything but) with Luann and her Aunt Patty Cooper, both Christian “believers.” Thirtyish Luann believes her choice to have faith and BE-LIEVE is behind her happiness (the anti-depressants don’t hurt either). “You can choose to be happy. Or you can choose to be sad. I prefer to be happy,” she explains to Bari.

“Whatever you choose, sooner or later it will end in grief,” Bari glumly replies. The spunky, honest, funny and compassionate camaraderie among these three provides both comic relief and fodder for deeper consideration — Does it really matter how one finds happiness? Is it really anybody’s business but your own?

Patty (also no stranger to mood enhancing drugs) decides to set Bari up with her cousin Mike (everyone in Coopersville has the surname Cooper except Bari), who has his own baggage and, literally, garbage. Bari outright refuses, immediately experiences the first of many forthcoming seizures, and ,with this seizure and its repercussions, playwright Laufer has penned the lynchpin on which the rest of the play’s message depends.

As Bari comes to, the sound shifts to the Zen meditation we heard at the beginning. For the first time in her life, Bari feels happy. She suddenly feels like everything matters, especially meeting Mike for a blind date. Suddenly she has “urges” that she must immediately satisfy. She loves this new euphoric Bari and will fight tooth and nail to hang onto it, whatever the price.

Turns out that price may be her life, but we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.

Under the spell of post-seizure after glow, she meets Mike (Barlow Adamson) and promptly has another seizure, this one more of a doozy. When revives, she hears yoga music and a sea of Oms. The sees auras. She is a poster child for ecstasy. She is terrified the feeling won’t last and goads him into coming home with her and having sex.

Girl gets boy that night, girl loses boy next day when she kicks him out so she can write, girl begs forgiveness from boy by presumptuously showing up at his sparse cabin unannounced.

There is a lot more to Mike than his eccentricities of collecting garbage (“found objects”), living without cell phone or a car, and cohabitating with a crow might indicate. His tragic backstory carries a motherlode of pain, guilt and despair. Yet, he is determined to rebuild his life (literally) by creating MacArthur Fellowship Genius Grant-worthy shelters from these found objects.

He is trying to keep his life small. No one has ever been to his cabin until her. “I can’t take on anything more,” he says as Bari relentlessly presses him for more.

He is convinced Bari’s headaches are caused by a brain tumor, her post-seizure euphoria a medically common side effect. He agrees to let her stay as long as she forks over her cell phone and understands he will dial 911 if she has another seizure.

Bari rhapsodizes about how she feels with her “new brain.” She doesn’t want to give it up and doesn’t want to know if it is a tumor that will kill her. She knows now that happiness exists; does it matter if its source is religion, Zoloft, meditation, sheer will of choice or a deadly tumor? For the first time, she feels alive. And she loves it.

Of course, she has another seizure. Of course, Mike calls 911 and accompanies her to the hospital. She has a kiwi-sized tumor and will indeed die — and soon — unless it is removed. Yet she is afraid she won’t like Mike, that he won’t like her, that she will become anhedonic without it. Does it really matter how we achieve happiness, even if it kills us?

What comes next would be a spoiler to reveal and this is a play that really should be seen, so I’ll stop here.

The actors give uniformly beautiful performances. Barlow Adamson stands out, bringing both gravitas and grace to the smart, wounded, quirky visionary Mike. Adamson is a big guy, yet manages to  transform himself into a fragile bird with a broken wing.

Samantha Richert takes Bari though her highs and lows at breakneck speed. But is the interplay between Shani Farrel (Patty) and Katherine C. Shaver (Luanne) that are a delightful reprieve from the sometimes relentless Sturm und Drang. Farrel is as practical as Shaver is mercurial and the way they play off each other is a pleasure to behold. Think the cast of “Steel Magnolias” or “9 to 5” and you get the idea.

Finally, Courtney O’Connor’s directing, Janie E. Howland’s clever set, Karen Perlow’s subtle lighting and especially Dewey Dellay’s composition and sound design elevate the production in notable yet nonintrusive ways.

For tickets or more information, go to lyricstage.com/

Lyric Stage’s ‘Be Here Now’ Asks: “At What Price Happiness?”

‘Be Here Now — Written by Deborah Zoe Laufer. Directed by Courtney O’Connor. Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland. Costume Design by Rachel Padula Shufelt. Lighting by Karen Perlow. Composition and Sound by Dewey Dellay. Starring Barlow Adamson, Shani Farrell, Samantha Richert and Katherine C. Shaver. Presented by The Lyric Stage Company of Boston at 140 Clarendon St. through October 17.

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