by Marilee Jolin
My family and I were excited to attend the opening night of Brooklyn Bridge at Seattle Children’s Theatre on Friday night but I was a bit apprehensive too. In the past, my daughters – aged 7 and 9 – have tended to be underwhelmed by the theater performances we’ve attended together, no matter how amazing I thought they were. And so often, I was floored by the deep meaning of a play only to learn that it went entirely over their heads.
So, when a miscommunication nearly made us late to the show and we failed to use the bathroom or get a drink of water before the performance began, I was sure this would all end in disaster. I envisioned my two bored, whiny, loud children losing interest in the show and forcing an embarrassing exit for a drink of water and a bathroom break.
When the usher gently reminded us that the show ran 80 minutes with no intermission, my heart sank.
But I needn’t have worried. From the moment we saw the breathtakingly perfect set, inviting in its industrial, “real-world” complexity we were hooked: fascinated by this slightly dingy, somewhat broken-down, New York City apartment building. Before us stretched three floors complete with trash incinerator chute, mailboxes, door buzzers and an in-operational elevator. My daughter Mira’s eyes lit up and she breathed out, “Wow” her gazed fixed on the stage. All thoughts of parched throats were instantly forgotten.
And then Analiese Emerson Guettinger stepped on stage. Even with her back to the audience, I knew instantly we were in for something special. Guettinger simply lights up the stage, carrying a weighty role on very young – and very capable – shoulders. I spent much of the performance trying to guess at her real age; certain she was older than the 10 years 7 months 20 days and some odd hours her character, Sasha, claims in the play. But I would never have guessed her full 17 years I read in the program.
Guettinger is spot-on in her portrayal of a precocious but somewhat repressed 10-year-old; utterly convincing in speech, manner, tone and gesture. She never falls into mimicry or caricature; endowing the young, bright Sasha with wisdom beyond her years but an utterly innocent and relatable core. I felt like she was me at age ten. And I’m certain everyone else in the audience felt that way too (including my 9-year-old daughter). Ms. Guettinger has an exceptional gift and I expect big things in her future theatre career.
Another standout performance for me was David Pichette in the role of John, a wheel-chair-bound older neighbor who bonds with Sasha over their mutual love of the Brooklyn Bridge. Pichette’s John is the elderly friend you wish you’d had as a kid; jovially wise, mildly sarcastic and beautifully patient. As my daughter Lina reflected: “He really listened to her [Sasha]”. Pichette’s aged mannerisms and comfort maneuvering in John’s wheelchair were so natural it was jarring to see him bound onto the stage after the performance and sit down cross-legged on the floor. Oh, right – I thought to myself. He’s not actually 99 years old.
Truly, the entire cast was phenomenal. From Sam, the Jamaican dental student whose initial interaction with Sasha encourages her to continue in her quest for a pen, to Trudi, the epically late upstairs neighbor, to the wise and warm downstairs mom-to-all, Talidia, I was seamlessly invited into a world where “strangers” become “neighbors” and solitude becomes community.
For while Sasha avoids her research paper with her search for a pen, far more is being built than the 8th wonder of the world. And, while I was blown away by the technical elements taking us back in time to the actual building of the Brooklyn Bridge, it is the growth and depth of relationship between Sasha and her neighbors that makes SCT’s Brooklyn Bridge so powerful.
We come to care deeply for young Sasha who is struggling a bit: often alone and on her own – her mother working nights and her father out of the picture. Her mother has restricted Sasha to the apartment but something deep in Sasha knows this rule will not work for her and – with encouragement from her kind neighbors begins to “re-write that rule”. Gradually – beautifully – we witness Sasha’s life begin to be fill with her diverse and quirky neighbors: each offering their own unique (and hilarious) way of caring for her.
I was grateful for the opportunity Brooklyn Bridge provided for my family to talk about the challenges of being an immigrant in the United States. On the drive home my 7-year-old, Lina, asked why Sasha could speak English so perfectly if her mother couldn’t speak it at all. We talked about how difficult it is to learn a new language and we wondered what specific circumstances might have made learning English hard for her mother.
Similarly, Lina was shocked that Sasha’s mother could be a well-respected professor in Russia but have to work nights as a janitor in the United States to get by. We had a great conversation about how hard it is to transfer education and job skills when you are an immigrant. I am grateful for SCT’s vivid portrayal of these issues; allowing us to come much closer to experiencing and understanding these struggles than we had previously.
If you want to explore questions of family and neighborhood and identity, Brooklyn Bridge will start that conversation. If you are interested in talking about immigration with your child, Brooklyn Bridge is for you. If you believe in the healing power of community, you will revel in Brooklyn Bridge. If you long for a world in which people care for and know each other more, Brooklyn Bridge will inspire you.
After the performance, my daughters waited shyly for autographs from the actors. The light in their eyes said it all. Seattle Children’s Theatre has done it again: challenging and inspiring people of all ages to engage compelling and relevant issues through performances of exceptional quality.
What more can I say? Just this: I’d see it again in a heartbeat. And my children agree.
Brooklyn Bridge runs at Seattle Children’s Theatre February 25 – March 20, 2016. Tickets may be purchased by calling SCT’s Ticket Office (206) 441-3322 or by visiting http://www.sct.org
Marilee Jolin is a columnist for the Emerald. She lives in Beacon Hill with her husband and two daughters.