“A suicide kills two people, that’s what it’s for,” Arthur Miller famously wrote in his play “After the Fall.” But Milly Thomas’ inventive solo piece, “Dust,” now at Next Door at New York Theatre Workshop, strikingly shows the after-effects of this almost inconceivable act on not just two people --but many members of the protagonist’s family, her closest friends, and most unusually, the “victim” herself.
We first meet the deceased Alice – stunningly portrayed by Thomas in a true tour-de-force performance -- on a morgue slab. She’s a pretty 20something woman who has taken her own life after a lifetime of depression and eating disorders. Yet, as we quickly discover, Alice now seems to wish she had made a different decision and “tries” somehow to reverse its course.
Over the course of 75 minutes, using language that is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking, profane and prosaic, profound and mundane, we join her on this unusual journey. We also come to realize that Alice is, deep down, a remarkable, clear-eyed soul who has let the fog of pain cloud her judgment, as so many people suffering from mental illness do. The scene in which she reenacts her last moments on earth are especially painful.
In the show’s time-shifting (and only occasionally confusing) structure, Alice recounts scenes from her past and fast-forwards to glimpses of the immediate future. Like many of us who may have imagined our own funeral, Alice’s ceremony isn’t the one she pictured in her mind; her drug-addled brother Robbie curses her and then breaks down; her distraught parents choose to recite the lyrics of her “favorite song” (when she was 15); and her best friend, Ellie, sprinkles in some hard truths among the expected sweet sentiments. She’s also less thrilled to see the presence of her boyfriend Ben in the front row, now that she’s discovered that the reality of their relationship.
Director Sara Joyce, who previously staged the show at the Edinburgh Fringe and London’s West End, takes great advantage of the intimate black box space here. If you’re in the front row (as I was), Thomas is sometimes so close to you – while never directly interacting with the audience – the show feels like a private performance. She also keeps the body-suited Thomas moving cleverly around the play’s only set piece, a bi-level metal table (credited to Anna Reid), and lighting designer Jack Weir and sound designer Max Perryment do wonders in creating the piece’s ever-shifting atmosphere; all help enormously in making the work feel anything but static.
Of course, on some level, “Dust” is more than a play; it’s a cautionary tale for anyone contemplating suicide. As Alice tell us towards the work’s end: “I thought death was an ending. But it’s nothing.” These words are definitely worth hearing –and heeding.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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