Chicago Theater Review: WE’RE ONLY ALIVE FOR A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME (Goodman Theatre)

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by Lawrence Bommer on September 25, 2018

in Theater-Chicago


His seventh coming is a gift worth opening. It’s been 13 years since Obie-winner David Cale has appeared on the Goodman Theatre stage. That’s where he previously presented six worthy works — The Redthroats, Deep in a Dream of You, Smooch Music, Lillian, Somebody Else’s House and Floyd and Clea Under the Western Sky.  The lanky storyteller now returns with a world premiere that’s a bittersweet valedictory for a nightmare childhood. Billed as “my most ambitious piece yet,” the gay performer’s 90-minute narrative/song cycle We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time delivers a showbiz exorcism for a trauma too terrible to be divulged.

There’s no questioning the bedrock sincerity or anguished immediacy of Cale’s autobiographical cantata, however long ago the original events happened. Though beautifully shaped by Goodman artistic director Robert Falls, Cale’s painfully intimate work, performed along with a six-person orchestra, seems swallowed up on the large Albert stage. (The smaller Owen would have been better suited to its confessional intensity.) But that’s its only drawback.

There’s no denying that audiences listen harder and that theatrical spells last longer when what we’re hearing actually happened — and to the artist who shares with us the pain of the ordeal.

Cale returns us to his troubled early years in dreary, crime-ridden, industrial Luton. Thirty miles north of London, it’s called the “only Northern town in southern England” — and that’s no compliment. Escaping from his parents’ constant squabbles, a chronically singing Cale finds refuge in the show’s most endearing element — his description of the bird sanctuary he created in a garden shed. This aviary “animal hospital” (remembered in the enchanting ballad “Canada Geese”) was home to 300 flying friends. (It would later be given away — not sold — as Cale, at only 17, leaves his hell in England and moves to America.)

The rest of this much less joyful remembrance happens as Cale recalls his shy and secretive brother Simon and his angry, alcoholic father, the spawn of a thuggish, factory-owning clan who frequented with the notoriously homocidal Kray brothers.

But mostly his moving one-act is a reclamation of Cale’s much wronged mother, a woman whose gifts were ignored and whose happiness was thwarted. Initially advancing as a designer in a hat factory, she married into what became a protracted tragedy. Loneliness (“Will I Ever Love a Man Again?”) dogged her till the end. Cale’s misfortune was never valuing her enough when it could have made a difference (“I Love You More Than You Know”), an aching void that this show can only pretend to fill.

Before he leaves home, this “poofter” (as one song is entitled) finds himself drawn to the strange refuge of “All the Smart Girls” who, unlike his mother, could fulfill their futures.

Adversity can’t purge a tainted soul but it does galvanize the urge to rise above it — into art. As terrible as its testimony turns, We’re Only Alive … redeems its carpe diem theme with an affirmative aftermath. This includes two affecting anecdotes involving Liza Minnelli and Studio 54. Cale, a “feral child,” finally finds a kind of balm in Gilead — more specifically, New York City.

Quiet even in excess, Cale’s self-muted outpouring is a triumph of restraint amid extremity. It must be both torturous and therapeutic to reprise it every night. The minor miracle is that Cale also manages to make it matter to all of us who happily avoided his youthful downbringing.

photos by Liz Lauren

We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time
Goodman Theatre’s Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn
ends on October 21, 2018
for tickets, call 312.443.3800 or visit Goodman Theatre

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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