by Jeannie Marlin Woods
Grief is nothing to laugh about. Well, unless you are Alison Larkin and have a totally different perspective on that very human condition. Larkin is a multi-talented human being—an actress, voice artist, comedy writer, comedienne, and best-selling author. This Berkshire resident is also the author and solo performer in the season opener of the Great Barrington Public Theater. The GBPTi s the Berkshires’ brightest new company emerging from the miasma of Covid lockdowns and this show gets the season off to a great start. Larkin’s autobiographical musical stand-up entertainment is called Grief: the Musical…A Comedy.
Grief is Larkin’s very personal story of love and loss and you need to know that it is a charming and entertaining journey into misfortune. Her story begins with her adoption and being raised by kind parents in Britain and her move to the U.S. to find her birth mother in an effort to understand her issues of abandonment and her fear of loving and losing the one you love. She goes on to tell us of her varied and successful career, her mundane and unsuccessful marriage, raising two kids, and resigning herself to a life alone and without love. Then quite unexpectedly in her early 50s she finds her soul mate—Bhima. They share a couple of years of glorious passion and profound joy until 2020 when COVID intervenes and she loses Bhima in what seems a particularly mean stroke of destiny.
Grief, the Musical is storytelling at its best. Larkin’s personal story is accented with music and songs. Gary Schreiner is the composer and pianist. His sweet, supportive presence and the musical interludes keep the story buoyant. Larkin’s singing is not her strong suit and the songs eventually take on a sameness—they are not memorable. But they do seem to emerge naturally from the narrator’s intense need to tell her story.
James Warwick directs the 90-minute (no intermission) comedy with a sure hand. The very basic set (consisting only of a table and chairs, a stool, and a mic) is enhanced with affective lighting by Brian Barnett and some lovely projections by Jacob Morgan Fisch. However, the space seems cavernous and the set too sparse for such an intimate piece is this. One longs for a smaller playing area or for more set pieces or a floor treatment or more specificity in the furniture to offer more context for the story.
Larkin is not only a fantastic comedy writer; she also meets the immense challenge of performing solo. Her charming British accent and excellent vocal skills bring alive a host of characters, from her Kentucky birth mother, to her dour British dad, and especially her beloved Bhima with his native accent from India. She utilizes numerous accents and voices in both story and song—my personal favorite was her Margaret Thatcher imitation. A few times in the play she seemed a little unsure or under-rehearsed. But to be fair, in a solo piece “taking a moment” can be perceived that way.
What is undoubtedly true is that Larkin is extremely funny and a very bright spirit. She is not strikingly beautiful or agile – she is an every-woman and all the more accessible for that. Considering the title of the play, one fears for the worst—that this will be a grim venture into sadness and loss. But that is the best part of Grief, the Musical. Larkin’s positive attitude carries her through a difficult life. She survives the grind of the L.A. entertainment business. She moves to New Jersey and on to the Berkshires and survives divorce and online dating. (That is summed up with the very funny exchange when, after being insulted, she asks her date “Are you drunk?” and he responds “No, I’m from Connecticut.”) Funny lines and hilarious experiences make us want to hear all of her story, even though tragedy is waiting in the wings for her.
Along the way, Larkin met and became a friend with the human rights advocate Desmond Tutu. He tells her that, “I can’t control what happens to me, but I can control how I respond to it.” That philosophy keeps her afloat through the unimaginable tragedy of losing Bhima. The message is to not waste a minute of your life and the storyteller Larkin urges us to follow her lead—to live more fully, to connect more strongly with those around us, and above all to love and love deeply.
GRIEF, A MUSICAL…A COMEDY
Written and performed by Alison Larkin
Original music by Gary Schreiner
Director: James Warwick
Costume Design: Arthur Oliver
Lighting Design: Brian Barnet
Sound and Projection Design: Jacob Morgan Fisch
GRIEF, A MUSICAL…A COMEDY runs June 3 through June 12. Evening performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30 p.m. Matinee performances Saturday and Sunday at 3:00 p. m. For tickets call 413-528-0684 or check website.
Running Time: 90 minutes with no intermission at the Daniel Arts Center, Liebowitz Black Box Theater, on the campus of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, 84 Alford Road, Great Barrington, MA. Closing June 12. Website: GreatBarringtonPublicTheater.org.