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Cause of Failure

nytheatre.com review by Nat Cassidy
August 12, 2012

Megan Weaver’s Cause of Failure is a deeply personal story told with verve and sincerity by Full Stop Collective. While complicated theatricality bedecks the proceedings, in the end it is a show concerned with the simplest of things: a woman getting weaker, a daughter getting older, a heart struggling to beat.

Maggie Johns, the play’s narrator, is a young woman with talent and dreams of becoming a writer. Unfortunately, her future is threatened by her mother’s congestive heart failure and the looming reality of having to become her primary caretaker before even graduating high school. As her mother’s condition worsens, Maggie discourses in a dreamlike manner about a host of things: the nature of the disease, her mother’s life and history, the family dynamics at play. Meanwhile, her mother’s heart, embodied by a mostly-mute actress in a flowing red wrap, stomps and interrupts, forever a troublemaker who refuses to comply with Maggie or her mother’s wishes. The visual metaphor is lovely and effective, and just one of the many Weaver employs in telling her story.

Director Leta Tremblay and her design team do an admirable job, especially under festival constraints, bringing the script’s various wild conceits to life. The impossible is meant to happen again and again: a car fills up with water and segues into an underwater ballet, a baby is born holding its mother’s heart (which then becomes a Christmas turkey), a villainous cartoon character comes to life to serve as a home health aide. Not every idea is (nor can be) fully manifested, and indeed there are times when the play sags under its own weight, but the imaginative work on display all goes towards displaying Maggie’s sense of beauty and wonder in the face of personal tragedy, as well as the difficulties she has in telling her mother’s story.

While the ensemble is not as consistent as one might wish, there are some fantastic performances. Christopher Norwood, as a sympathetic community college professor, brings a jolt of energy right when it’s needed and both he and Kevin Bunge (as Maggie’s brother Cory) have a charming, easy-going nature that help ground the piece.  Lauren Hennessy captures the concerned insouciance of a busy physician wonderfully, and the chorus, a quartet of women who serve as anything from nurses to fish to ventricles, is wonderfully confident and varied. Respect must also be given to Sam Given, who vigorously navigates some of the most treacherous high heels I’ve ever seen (although I wanted more of a payoff of some kind for his outrageous character). And Lauren Weinberg as Maggie is a graceful and endearing center. Her journey is a difficult one, but she shoulders the show capably, and never overplays what could be a maudlin exercise in mourning.

There are scenes here of, for want of a less on-the-nose descriptor, heartbreaking power, particularly for those who have had to deal with a loved one’s deteriorating condition. There are also quibbles to be had—the staging could stand to be a bit more dovetailed, as there are a few too many moments of internal down-time that make the show feel a bit, well, bradycardic—but any nitpicking pales in the light of Cause of Failure’s greater purpose. This is a triumphantly sincere piece of theatre—so much so that Full Stop will be donating a percentage of its box office to Help Hope Live, an organization which helps support patients and their families while they wait for organ transplants.

That giving spirit saturates the work onstage, as well. Weaver is putting her heart in your hands, and that’s the greatest gift any playwright can bestow.