How does it feel when you enter the middle years of your life and start to wonder, is this all there is? What happens when you look around and realize things haven’t turned out as you planned, and you’ve reached an age when they probably won’t?
For Helena and Bob, the two troubled, world-weary main characters in City Theatre’s Midsummer, this crisis of failed ambition comes as they turn 35. As Helena puts it: “You know at 35 you’re really never going to be an Olympic gymnast.”
Both are lonely, disappointed, and wondering, “Is this it?” when they meet in an Edinburgh pub on a rainy night on Midsummer weekend.
That may seem like a despondent set-up—when we meet Bob he is reading Dostoyevsky to “cheer himself up”—but Midsummer is a comedy, and generates plenty of humor and slapstick from its characters’ difficult and often absurd circumstances.
What begins with a night of drunken, awkward (and hilariously portrayed) sex turns into a wild caper involving petty crime, busking with goths, lobsters dancing to Bjork, a few punches, and a trip to IKEA.
Midsummer, billed as “a play with songs,” is by the Scottish playwright David Greig with songs by Gordon McIntyre of the indie band Ballboy. The show was a hometown hit when it premiered in Edinburgh in 2008, and since then has been done in some major venues throughout the U.K. and U.S. City Theatre is presenting it here with Randy Redd in the role of Bob, and Carey Van Driest as Helena.
Van Driest and Redd are on stage for the entire 90 minutes (there’s no interval), at times briefly taking on other minor roles—Redd most notably an awkward 12-year-old boy, and Driest capably morphing into an intimidating gangster, and a 17-year-old football player.
The play opens as the actors walk into the theater playing guitars and singing a lovelorn song, before immediately establishing that this will be quite an irreverent love story, by jumping straight to a sex scene.
The story then backtracks to how the two lovers meet, with Bob waiting in a pub to do a job for his thug boss, and Helena waiting for a date who never shows up. Helena also has a secret—one she can’t even admit to herself—and Bob is all too willing to go along with her plan to “drink so that we forget who we are and where we are”.
Their alcohol-fueled antics bring no shortage of laughs from the audience, but the emotion of the play is carried in the songs. The simple, folky tunes are performed by Van Driest and Redd, playing guitar, ukulele. and tambourine.
The loneliness and desperation under their bravado come through in the lyrics of one repeated refrain: “Love will break your heart in two / Sometimes you want it to”.
The play takes place on an almost bare stage, with audience in a U-shape around three sides.
A raised platform in the center acts as bed, car, table, cathedral steps, and park bench, while two chairs and a stool are moved around the space as needed.
The backdrop is a hotchpotch of furniture and household items strung together as if tumbling randomly from the ceiling—a chimney, blackboard, bed head, dressers, window frames, a guitar case, and more. Within the jumble, props are hidden in drawers and on shelves, and guitars and chairs are tucked away while not in use.
The lighting makes use of a dozen naked bulbs hanging over the actors on long cords, while at times the whole stage is washed in color: yellow for a sunny afternoon, red for the interior of a fetish club, blue for the Edinburgh streets at 4 a.m.
The play’s Edinburgh setting is a key feature—the action winds through some 28 locations including the Scottish capital’s Old Town, the Princess Street Gardens, and the Leith Docks.
The voice of Edinburgh is infused in the script as well, with the actors’ lines peppered with Scottish slang terms, which sometimes results in a joke going begging as a particular word or phrase fails to resonate with the audience.
City Theatre has tried to counter this with a screen displaying a glossary of slang terms in the lobby, though it probably went unnoticed by most attendees.
The actors’ Scottish accents are also a key part of building the sense of location, and both have obviously worked hard on getting the voice and tone right. But in 90 minutes of fast, demanding dialogue, there were times when the accents slipped, especially when the two actors were playing their minor characters. This is particularly noticeable in Van Driest’s portrayal of a manic weathercaster, which nonetheless drew appreciative laughs from the audience.
As the heartbroken and confused Helena, Van Driest is pitch perfect. She visibly crumples as her romantic hopes dissolve in a series of emoji-punctuated texts. The audience is laughing along as she reads them but is also in no doubt of her hurt and anger.
Redd uses physical humor to good effect and plays for laughs well in some of his more absurd scenes, such as playing a whole roomful of Bobs at an imaginary Bob conference. But he also draws the audience in effectively to feel Bob’s pain and regret as he confronts someone from his past.
It’s a demanding show for the actors, with snappy dialogue and physical humor sometimes transitioning without pause into song. Both gave whole-hearted performances, and were rewarded with most of the audience rising for a standing ovation.
There are surprises and disappointments before Midsummer’s weekend of mayhem comes to an end. And while the conclusion is no fairytale ride into the sunset, everyone is left with a reason to hope.
Midsummer, directed for City Theatre by Tracy Brigden, runs through May 31 at 1300 Bingham St., South Side. For showtimes and tickets visit City online or call 412-431-CITY.
Photos by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy of City Theatre.
Heather McCracken is a Pittsburgh freelance writer and editor.