People talk facilely about theater "magic," but the ephemeral nature that sets performance apart from books or films or records is beyond the reach of cliché. Individuals congregate at a particular spot, make something to show other individuals, and then go away, never to be reunited in that particular configuration. There will be other Othellos, other Arcadias, and other productions where actor A will costar with actor B, but each production creates an atmosphere that's beyond rare. It's unique.
Which is why watching Theatre22's production of Live! From the Last Night of My Life is both unsettling and rewarding. Wayne Rawley's excellent play about a convenience-store clerk who has decided to kill himself at the end of his graveyard shift was performed with the same cast and almost entirely the same crew at Theater Schmeater in 2011. Rawley shies away from calling this production a "remount," and it's not hard to see why—while it's a pleasure to remember and relive that production, Live! has deepened with age. That is partially a credit to the actors, all of whom give more nuanced performances than they did four years ago, but also to Rawley's portrait of a specific kind of despair. His script manages to be comedy and tragedy at the same time.
Doug Sample (Ryan Higgins) is that demographically dullest of creatures—a thirtysomething, straight white male with a middle-class upbringing and a bad case of malaise. His final shift at the Super Slurp Gas Up and Get Goin' in Marysville becomes a night-long suicide note addressed to his boss via the security cameras she's recently installed around the store. As the play progresses, his mind ping-pongs between memories (mostly of his parents and girlfriends), his fantasies (conversations with John Travolta, performing Footloose-style routines with his imaginary backup dancers), and the nighthawks who wander in and interrupt his reveries.
As people from all three of these dimensions continue to remind him, he's a guy with "potential." He used to work at Amazon.com (and quit just before it went public), is good with computers, and is generally liked by the people around him—but he doesn't like himself. Being the beneficiary of all the privilege America has to offer doesn't help. In fact, it seems to make things worse: He can't hang his despair and self-loathing on anything but himself.
Though the narrative is bleak, Rawley and the nine-person ensemble stuff every scene with grim comedy as a whole menagerie of customers comes bursting through the door: snotty girls buying cigarettes, pompous rich guys irritated about having to prepay for their gas after dark, a psychic who plays the Lotto but refuses to use her "beautiful gift" to pick the winning numbers, weeping women with bad boyfriends, heshers who pump nacho cheese directly into their hands before slurping it up, and a strangely happy employee from the Circle K across the street who chastises Doug for not being more appreciative of the Super Slurp's east-facing windows and its view of the sunrise. "You have to stick around long enough to watch the sun come up," the man (played with a gleeful, stoner enthusiasm by Corey McDaniel) urges Doug. "Do you have any idea of the impossible shenanigans that had to come together to even make watching the sunrise possible? Atoms banging boots in just the right combos, the earth and sun dancing at just the right distance. Have you ever thought about how absolutely mind-blowingly crazy it is that there is, like, air?"
"You know what I'm really not going to miss?" Doug deadpans to the security camera after the Circle K guy leaves. "Shit like that... I can't leave, I can't throw them out, I can't bare-knuckle fight them, I can't make them stop talking. You call this a 'convenience store'?" A car honks outside, wanting Doug to turn on the gas pumps.
Higgins gives a tireless performance, swooping between memories, fantasies, and customers like a bird, and the ensemble is just as good—particularly James Weidman, Jason Sharp, and Samie Spring Detzer—as the collection of weirdos parading through Doug's mind. Together they bring even more vibrancy and urgency to life behind a convenience-store counter than they did back in 2011. Live! lets us do something Doug cannot—relive what could be his last night on earth one more time.