Traveling Light holds court in real graveyard

Grave matters: David Beukema, Wade A. Vaughn, Shannon Troy Jones, and Rachel Finch
Charlie Gorrill

We tend to live, as we must, in a state of perpetual possibility, a willful ignorance of our finite nature and apparent insignificance (hence our willingness to get out of bed every morning). Lindsay Harris Friel's Traveling Light, despite some narrative shortcomings, captures a scenario in which Thanatos waits in the wings, but does so with a welcome sense of openness, humor, and belief in tomorrow.

The immediate circumstances are paradoxically humble. Beatles manager Brian Epstein (David Beukema) has scaled the wall of a Jewish cemetery in 1967 London. He arrives with a suit pocket jangling with pill vials, a drive for self-destruction, and an unwelcome follower in the form of bad-boy playwright Joe Orton (Wade A. Vaughn), who has a bone to pick about a script Epstein commissioned and then deemed unsuitable as a vehicle for the Fab Four.

Friel's scenario never really happened, but it conceivably could have, a fact made all the more chilling by the real-life knowledge that both men were dead within weeks of this fictional night (Orton murdered by his partner, Epstein overdosing in more ambiguous circumstances). Our protagonists are nearing the end of their respective stories, and we can't help but view them as ghosts plucked out of history and left to converse without the knowledge of their demise.

Theatre Pro Rata's decision to stage this work in a cemetery (reportedly the oldest in Minnesota) certainly adds to the evening's resonance. It's no small matter to watch a work preoccupied with life and death amid tombstones too worn to read the names of those interred beneath, or to watch the shadows of dusk lengthening while two doomed souls hash out their differences.

Beukema plays Epstein as appropriately uptight and straight-laced (the Beatles' manager endured the double whammy of being Jewish and gay in a milieu that wasn't particularly open-armed to either demographic), while Vaughn's Orton is a wisecracking, leering, insinuating fellow of outsized charm and a clear desire to shatter Epstein's reserve. Much of their conversation revolves around their homosexuality, given the taboo nature of their orientation at the time (as well as the peculiar late-night intimacy inspired by their surroundings).

They aren't alone, of course. Even in this secluded necropolis their encounter is punctuated by the intrusion of the blowhard Constable McDonald (Shannon Troy Jones) and his conflicted subordinate Foster (Rachel Finch). Epstein and Orton are besieged by the imminent threat of arrest for public homosexuality (the pair exchange clothes at Orton's urging at one point, but romantic sparks do not fly), driving home the notion that these two are persecuted for their intrinsic natures.

Ultimately, this is a play in which people stand around and talk, and there are inherent pitfalls. Orton recounts the library shenanigans with Kenneth Halliwell that landed the two in jail, and Epstein laments in passing that the Beatles are increasingly orbiting beyond his sphere of influence. A subsequent development involving Foster is wildly unlikely and forced, and a final revelation involving Jones's repressed constable takes us into an unwelcome zone of overtime.

But what works here works nicely and is convincingly wistful and bittersweet. Vaughn gives us Orton as a brilliant smartass with a compassionate heart, and Beukema's Epstein is a knot of unrealized yearning. Friel is kind enough to have the pair work out their opposition in a manner that leads to mutual understanding and sends the two off with a sense of optimism and possibility.

We can't help but root for Orton and Epstein in this alternate history, these two lovely and imperfect souls who checked out too early. They walk away, amid the gravestones, flush with the possibilities of an open heart and new day. They live in a flawed drama, but for a fleeting moment they enjoy the sort of happy ending to which we all aspire.

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