“Donny and Marie without the sexual tension.” Steve Martin and Martin Short’s An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life at Fort Wayne’s Embassy Theatre

There is a perfect comedic moment – amidst countless such moments – at the end of Steve Martin and Martin Short’s current touring production An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life. Short is serenading the audience with Sondheim’s cliched classic “Send in the Clowns” while sitting atop the grand piano on which Steve Martin accompanies him.

For the first (and last) time in the show, Short is playing for sincerity, employing his surprisingly effective and beautiful singing voice to wring ironic pathos out of the lyrics, albeit with that omnipresent puckish twinkle in his eye.

Roles suddenly reversed, Martin editorializes shamelessly, interrupting the flow with delightfully pointed barbs (“Where are those godd*mned clowns?!” … “NARY a clown!”). Martin croons, “One who keeps tearing around [gestures to self], one who can’t move [flits a hand toward Martin].” Martin stops playing, looks at Short with believable exasperation, and spits out a perfectly timed: “F*ck you.” Cue audience howls of delight.

That moment of camaraderie and candor is an exquisite representation of the show in its entirety: a streamlined and contemporary homage to the unhinged yet cerebral comics stylings of, say, a Steve Allen or Victor Borge, the leave-it-all-on-the-field heart of a Sid Caesar, the button-down mind of a Bob Newhart, the buddy/buddy tension of a Martin and Lewis in their prime, and the glib showbizzy glitz of a classic Bob Hope Oscar hosting gig (sans those pesky awards).

While those influences are obvious and intentional and openly acknowledged by Martin and Short, the show is very much its own special creation, as much a reflection of and capstone to the storied careers of its two featured stars as it is a celebration of the artistic influences on these two talented baby boomers.

Performing at Fort Wayne‘s historic Embassy Theatre on Friday, May 18 to a sold out crowd (which became a witty aside in itself at the expense of performers who “never learned to save” and who “sell out” doing such latter-career runs), An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life is a warm, intimate, clubby, utterly charming fireside chat of a production: expertly paced, professionally mounted, and consummately memorable. To describe this as a Broadway caliber show would not be hyperbole.

There are some fantastically bonkers surprises I will dare not spoil in this review. Just be aware that, while both performers exhibit a lovely, moneyed, Carsonesque cool, calm, and collected demeanor throughout, that poise is a big ol’ ruse … their trademark crazy is just one banjo, bagpipe, or leaf blower away. Oh, and Jiminy Glick. As a hand puppet.

This is a beautifully balanced evening, leveraging video, music, talk show formats, monologues, vintage photos, and sketch comedy to weave a compelling narrative of how these two performers found success (and occasional failure) in Hollywood and how their infectious bromance evolved over four decades. “Donny and Marie without the sexual tension,” Short quips at one point.

Also, as evidence of the graciousness and wisdom of these two performers who endeavor to give every patron his or her money’s worth, to celebrate the talent of others, AND to take a well-deserved mid-show break, the production features a kind of concert-within-a-show as frequent Martin musical collaborators Steep Canyon Rangers take to the stage and offer a bluegrass inferno the likes of which I’ve never seen. Imagine the titular character in “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” bum-rushing a Lollapalooza mosh pit inside Studio 54.

So. freaking. good.

As my mother observed (we were there to celebrate her birthday and Mother’s Day): “It was like Steve Martin and Martin Short were in my living room, and we just got to listen to them and laugh without talking to them or without them hurting our feelings. Martin and Steve performed atop a grand piano at one zany point and referenced #MeToo in a hilarious, subtle fashion. What a show the Martins created…a real gift for two hours which flew by. I feel like I know those guys now.”

Amen to that. Nary a clown? Pshaw. Absolute geniuses? Indubitably.

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Postscript … and then THIS happened … whoa!

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language

“I don’t like stupid.” A weekend of iconoclasts: Johnny Depp (Black Mass), Lily Tomlin (Grandma), and An Evening with Bill Maher

Bill MaherIt was a weekend of iconoclasts in Indiana as I spent the past two days in the Hoosier state with Johnny Depp, Lily Tomlin, and Bill Maher.

Well, I actually spent the past two days with my equally free-thinking parents who defy geographic boundaries, and we all took in movies and a show that featured these three performers.

Bill MaherNamely, Black MassGrandma, and An Evening with Bill Maher.

Bill Maher, explaining how he got into some controversy in a debate last fall with Ben Affleck (of all people), noted that he “just doesn’t like stupid things.”

Bill MaherAnd in his worldview, that idea encompasses any government or faith or group of self-important, judgmental blowhards who want to diminish the rights and freedoms of others, particularly those who chronically find themselves on the short end of every stick.

Susie and Bill

Susie and Bill

Fair enough. In fact, this notion of raging against stupid things defined all of this weekend’s entertainment.

Our first rule breaker of the weekend was Black Mass‘ Johnny Depp, so immersed in the look and feel of notorious Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, one might suspect he forgot to pay much mind to character development along the way. You know Johnny – he loves those colored contacts, that pancake makeup, and disarmingly fake-ass teeth. At least in this film, we didn’t have to suffer through any zany chapeaus.

Regardless, it is an impressive if uneven performance in an impressive if uneven film. Bulger, not unlike cinematic forebear Hannibal Lecter, definitely doesn’t like stupid. The film, directed with a more-or-less sure hand by Scott Cooper, marries the gruesome and the sparkling in surprising and inventive ways, and Bulger, at least in Depp’s portrayal, exacts a delightfully cracked code of punishing the moronic. Early in the film, Depp as Bulger tells a meddling police officer, “Do you think I’d warn you when I’m going to hurt you? No, you won’t see it coming.” Throughout the film, anyone who breaches Bulger’s plainspoken code, right and wrong, inevitably finds themselves two or three scenes down the road on the wrong end of a gun or more likely bare-fisted death blows.

"Black Mass (film) poster" by Source. Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Black_Mass_(film)_poster.jpg#/media/File:Black_Mass_(film)_poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Black Mass details the rise and fall and disappearance of real-life Boston “Southie” gangster James “Whitey” Bulger. Alas, familiarity breeds contempt, and we’ve seen too many fictionalized versions of this and similar stories over the past decade: The Departed, The Town heck, American Hustle. While Depp gives the role his all, it’s just not quite enough to take the film to fresh levels. He may have had too much reverence for the character (or for his prosthetics), and Bulger sometimes seems like a ghost in his own film.

However, Benedict Cumberbatch turns in some of his best work as Bulger’s starched straight-arrow politico brother, a successful senator from Boston. Benedict must have seen Depp’s cosmetic indulgence and headed 180 degrees in the other direction. Smart move. Cumberbatch resists the urge to play any predictable notes of sturm und drang. Cumberbatch gives us the consummate politician – likable, gracious, but with the kind of studied ethical ambivalence that makes looking the other way seem like moral high ground.

Joel Edgerton, as the brothers’ childhood friend, also does a fine job in a pivotal role as an FBI agent who may fancy himself the long arm of the law but, in the end, enjoys frequenting Miami discotheques with mobster buddies a bit too much. The point/counterpoint of the film comes from the devil’s gambit Edgerton plays, cutting a deal with Whitey to provide what ultimately proves to be specious intel to the FBI regarding his fellow crooks. By the time anyone realizes, the die is cast and decades have passed wherein Whitey Bulger builds an empire with his FBI buddy indeterminately complicit in the act.

Don and Roy and Susie between flicks

Don and Roy and Susie between flicks

Other standouts include Dakota Johnson, Julianne Nicholson, Corey Stoll, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Jesse Plemons, Peter Sarsgaard, Juno Temple, and W. Earl Brown. In fact, that is a big part of the film’s problem – too many characters, all well cast, but with not nearly enough time to develop fully. It is a testament to the performances and to the director that they stand out as they do.

As visceral and immersive as the film is, it just isn’t quite the gut punch I’d hoped. The narrative gets lost in a thicket of Scorsese-light subplots focusing on Bulger’s many “business ventures” (hailai! vending machines! sending weapons to the Irish Republican Army!), when what we most needed to see and explore were the serpentine interpersonal relationships of the two brothers, their family and their friends.

Giving us a much richer portrayal of an original gangster is Lily Tomlin in Chris Weitz’ charming ball of familial toxins Grandma. Tomlin plays a writer and academic whose longtime partner recently died, whose daughter has stopped speaking to her, and whose granddaughter turns to her in a moment of crisis. The film takes the form of an inter-generational road trip (which we’ve seen too many times before – and as recently as, say, Tammy or The Guilt Trip), but in this case sharp writing, smart feminist sub (and super) text, and flesh and blood authenticity transform cliché into revelation.

"Grandma Movie Poster" by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Grandma_Movie_Poster.jpg#/media/File:Grandma_Movie_Poster.jpg

[Image Source: Wikipedia]

There will be a host of boneheads out there who will stubbornly refuse to see this film because Tomlin’s granddaughter has turned to her grandmother to help her pay for an abortion. Damn, I’m tired of knee-jerk closed-mindedness. Honestly, it’s not a film about abortion. It’s a film about humanity – those of us living in the here and now, faced with darkly comic daily tragedies that only the mundane can bring.

We have become a country of squawkers who so viciously judge everyone else’s choices in the abstract that we’ve completely forgotten the real people behind those choices, people struggling to get lives back on track or to fulfill their deepest potential. You know what? The path any of us take to get there is no one’s damn business. This film celebrates that notion, warts and all.

The film suffers from some clunky transitions, endemic of the low-budget indie, but, on the whole, Tomlin and the film really zing, heightened by the deft help of a supporting cast that includes … genius, heartfelt Marcia Gay Harden as Tomlin’s loopy, jagged little pill of a careerist daughter; Judy Greer earnest and raw as Tomlin’s frustrated girlfriend; Julie Garner, a saucy millennial dandelion as Tomlin’s suffering, sputtering, spiraling granddaughter; firecrackers Laverne Cox and Elizabeth Pena (in her last role) as a couple of Tomlin’s cronies; and Sam Elliott as an open wound of an ex-husband, all swagger, self-righteousness, and melancholy.

But ultimately this is Tomlin’s show. This film is the perfect synthesis of the platform she has championed for decades: we are all outsiders on this planet, and no one more so than women. Why define and limit opportunity based on rudimentary biological constructs? Why is every choice women make questioned and challenged, and emotional, financial, clinical, occupational resources are funneled away in those moments when they are most needed, out of some kind of institutionalized patriarchal spite.

A quiet storm of misanthropic joy, Tomlin wages a postmodern Sherman’s March, across Los Angeles, in pursuit of the meager dollars needed to fund her granddaughter’s procedure. She suffers no fools gladly – from a standoff with John Cho in a pretentious coffee shop that displaced a women’s clinic (you haven’t lived until you see Tomlin write “f*ckhead” in spilled coffee on a snooty barista’s floor) to a heart-wrenching (and crazy funny) defense of her granddaughter when they finally arrive at the actual clinic where the procedure will be performed. I don’t want to spoil the surprise, but what a pro-life little princess does to express her “love of humanity” (with Tomlin on the receiving end) is as telling as it is hysterical.

Roy and Susie waiting for Bill

Roy and Susie waiting for Bill

Tomlin’s character is a broken heart in bullet-proof armor, fed up with a society that undervalues humanity, especially anyone who lives on the margins, pigeonholed by age, gender, sexuality, or, hell, hairstyle.

Bill Maher, may walk a similar path through life, at least as evidenced by his stand-up routine. As the host of Politically Incorrect and Real Time, Maher has always wielded snark like a machete, cutting down rigid, conservative political idiocy at every turn. Whereas a Jon Stewart or a Stephen Colbert are a bit more equal opportunity, taking as many digs at Democrats as Republicans, Maher saves most of his ire for Republicans, championing any underdog he sees persecuted by increasingly shrill right-wing pundits and blowhards.

Bill MaherMuch like Tomlin’s Grandma, Maher’s routine Saturday night at the Fort Wayne Embassy took no prisoners.  With an impish and childlike glee, Maher swung for the fences, excoriating the pompous asses currently running for president. I’ll let you figure out who his chief targets were. One hint: all of them.

I had, perhaps unfairly, found Maher a bit misogynistic in the past. I love that he comes to the aid of all creatures great and small – he is a longtime board member for PETA. However when it came to women, it has often felt like he left his conscience and consciousness in some back hallway of the Playboy Mansion.

Saturday night’s show went a long way toward correcting that perception, as 90 to 95% of his routine actively subverted conventional concepts of gender and sexuality. He nailed a bit on how different cultures define and imprison women via the sartorial choices dictated by fashion or religion.

However, in the show’s final minutes, Maher took a strange left turn that seemed to be an ill-advised concession to menopausal chauvinists – which is too bad cause there weren’t any that I could spy in the beautifully diverse sold out crowd. He went down a strange path of wondering when “his group” – apparently men who date women half their age – would be “celebrated,” going on to re-enact Cialis and Viagra advertisements. It was as unconvincing as it was odd and overreaching – “Look at me! I may be a liberal, but I’m a baby boomer man, and I dig the ladiiiiieeesss.” Whatever. I’m not buyin’ what you’re sellin’, Maher.

Bill MaherI will admit that embedded in his concluding riff was a keen observation that a certain group of men are still driven entirely by preoccupation with their nether regions and not with their brains. Yet, unlike any other era, they have access to a medical industry and clinical research to make their pubescent dream$ reality.

However, it was, to say the least, murky, as to whether Maher saw himself with pride as part of the crumbling Casanova club or as their court jester. It was a strange note of ambivalence to end an otherwise scorchingly consistent evening of social insight and tolerance.

To watch any comedian for two hours is a bit of a marathon. It’s a lot to ask of them, and it’s a lot to ask of the audience, but Maher rose to the occasion, and, with the assistance of a handy notebook full of laminated pages, he kept the momentum coursing through a wide array of topics, chiefly political though not exclusively.

We were also offered brief glimmers of what his upbringing was like in a Catholic home raised by two liberals who always championed the poor and the downtrodden. He didn’t open his veins for the audience – he’s anything but a memoirist. Yey, by showing us a peek into what sounded like an idyllic and inclusive home, he revealed that underneath whatever emotional Kevlar he has strapped on, there is a sweet and wounded heart beating inside.

His relentless barbs take on a different tone in that context. The marginalized kid is Maher, and this is his ultimate revenge fantasy on all the dopes who bullied him in life. It’s like Death Wish with jokes as his weapons and idiot politicians as his prey.

The party's over

The party’s over

Maher opened with some well-deserved digs at Indiana in 2015, much to the delight of the capacity crowd. About Hoosier leaders like Governor Mike Pence, Maher crowed, “Why, they don’t have the book learning to get into a tractor pull!” To be among thousands of like-minded liberals from across Northeast Indiana (I mean, I’ve never seen the Embassy so packed) was a revelation for my parents who often feel isolated and sad for holding such progressive beliefs in the community – a place that seems to buy (and spread) the thick, sticky, divisive, fear-mongering balm Fox and Friends slops across the land every A.M.

The party's over

The party’s over

IMG_2730 IMG_2732

Bill Maher

Bill Maher

Maher’s words electrified a big room of open brains, thirsting for a different kind of dialogue, one where we could talk, laugh, commiserate, re: the significance of global warming or to deride and dismiss hypocritical ravings of multiple-married conservatives who fail to see how their behavior undermines their beloved institution of wedded bliss.

Sitting in that huge performance space of the Embassy, encrusted as it is in gilt and cherubs and velvet – an artifact of another time; being part of a crowd of raving regular folks who happened to dig tolerance and laughter; having been informed by two films the night before that questioned how we see ourselves and how we measure the success of a life fulfilled, I thought, “Hey, am I at a kind of big tent revival? Evangelism for the Anti-Elmer Gantry age? Well, sign me up for another round.”

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Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews 2

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital)In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

Haunting truths – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, The Counselor, and The Fifth Estate

Me with my mom Susie Duncan Sexton at Grand Wayne Center prior to performance [Image by author]

When you visit your childhood home, you can’t help but feel like a kid again. You may be careening past 40 years of age, but one look at a stuffed animal you used to cuddle or a board game you used to play and you’re 12 again. I cherish my visits with my parents in Indiana as we always have laughter and thoughtful conversations and adventures and movies. And I always feel blissfully childlike.

Cover of Duncan Sexton’s second book, now available
[Image Source: Open Books]

It is with this deep-feeling and introspective state-of-mind – impacted also by the impending, always ethereal Halloween holiday and by a couple of manic weeks helping my mom shepherd her second book Misunderstood Gargoyles and Overrated Angels to print (order it here – sorry, can’t help myself … but seriously, it is amazing!) – that I approached one of our family’s signature movie (and in this instance also theatre) marathon weekends.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

What did we see? What didn’t we see! Thursday night, we found ourselves at Fort Wayne, Indiana’s gloriously preserved Embassy Theatre with the John Mellencamp/ Stephen King/T-Bone Burnett horror musical Ghost Brothers of Darkland County making a stop on its trial tour of the Midwest. The show is told in old-fashioned radio drama style with actors and musicians on stage the entire performance and with minimal props and a vintage microphone in the middle of the stage (though that last bit is mostly for show as all the players also wear those Britney Spears/McDonald’s drive-thru/Time-Life operator headset things).

The spartan approach works generally well, at least during the first act, as the spooky tale unfurls of two feuding brothers, their bloody end, and the generational impact their war eventually would have on the nephews they would never have a chance to meet. The show stars Bruce Greenwood (Star Trek, Thirteen Days) and Emily Skinner (Tony-nominee for Side Show) as the family’s world-weary patriarch and matriarch (respectively) who want desperately for the current generation to just get the heck along.

Ghost Brothers cast at curtain call [Image by author]

Greenwood and Skinner and Mellencamp’s rockabilly/ bluegrass score are the assets of an otherwise uneven show. With a more-than-adequate supporting cast, the show rumbles through a strong first act exploring the corrosive effects that lies and jealousy and stubborn misunderstanding can have on every branch of a family tree.

The second act, however, doesn’t fare nearly as well. Logic, sensible chronology, and audience sympathies are all tossed out the window for a muddled, hasty denouement riddled with carnage and too many smart aleck remarks. The latter are delivered nonetheless with aplomb by the ever-present “Shape” – played by a firecracker Jake LaBotz – who lurks behind all the players encouraging bad deeds and ill intent. Other standouts are Kylie Brown wringing every last bit of malicious glee from her role as the resident temptress Anna (she’s one to watch!) and Jesse Lenat doing triple duty as narrator, guitarist, and angelic yin to LaBotz’s yang.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Next up on our tour of cynical debauchery was Ridley Scott’s new film The Counselor. Script problems would plague pretty much every selection of the weekend, and this one was no exception. The first 30 minutes of the film are cringe-worthy with Scott’s trademark cinematic fetishization of sleek mid-century furnishings, gleaming sports cars, and objects otherwise found in lost issues of the J. Peterman catalog completely unchecked. Eventually, however, the film clicks into high-gear and these initial missteps are quickly forgotten (and one might argue seem intentional: rampant, glib superficiality in stark contrast to the soul-crushing darkness that follows).

Michael Fassbender stars as the never-named, vacuous, materialistic title character whose love of self and stuff leads him to make some dodgy deals with fabulously attired, endlessly entertaining, totally skeezy drug dealers. The latter are portrayed by the always dependable Javier Bardem as well as Cameron Diaz and Brad Pitt, turning in frothy/smarmy/delightful performances. There are a host of fun cameos that I don’t want to spoil, but let’s just say this is a cast to die for. And pretty much every one of them does.

The Counselor is a Trojan Horse of a movie. It seems to be escapist fantasy – a Vanity Fair photo-expose of the rich and powerful, tacky and corrupt, brought to burnished, big screen life. Yet, the real agenda of screenwriter Cormac McCarthy (No Country for Old Men) in his first piece written directly for the movies is to taunt us with the trappings of wealth and then peel back every sordid layer of the blood, pain, and (literal) human filth underpinning these lavish, undeserved lifestyles.

Much ink may be spilled about Diaz’s … er.. relations with a yellow Ferrari in the film, but that scene (notably Bardem’s exasperated monologue, Diaz’s keen power-play, and Bardem’s and Fassbender’s wry facial expressions) is dynamite – funny, distressing, horrifying. It is a perfect snapshot of the scuzzy glitz personified by these Machiavelli-meets-Jersey Shore super-thugs.

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Finally, we made our way to Bill Condon’s The Fifth Estate, a film unfairly painted with the broad brush of box office failure. Yes, it has a script that devolves into train wreck – the final act squanders the spidery intrigue of the film’s first two-thirds with some US-government silliness led by the otherwise reliable Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci. However, Benedict Cumberbatch sparkles as Julian Assange, whose controversial website WikiLeaks is the film’s chief subject matter.

Condon takes his time tracing the rise of WikiLeaks, a website that effectively shielded a whole host of geopolitical and corporate whistle-blowers from those powerful enough to otherwise bully them into submission. Condon doesn’t lose his audience in cyberpunkery and technobabble; rather, he delivers strong characters in an easy-to-follow (if at times unconventional) entrepreneurial narrative, highlighted by quick edits, blessedly appreciated subtitles, hyperconscious symbolism and theatricality, and a great Daft Punk-meets-Kraftwerk-meets-Blondie score.

Assange, who in real life famously disparaged Cumberbatch and his performance and the film itself, actually comes off a sympathetic character. Assange’s chronic disappointment with the world and its inhabitants has turned him into the ultimate underdog, railing against a crushingly capitalistic infrastructure that espouses free speech while secretly depriving it at every turn.

Perhaps it is my predilection as fall edges closer to winter to turn inward and seek patterns where they may or may not exist, but, to my mind, all three pieces – Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, The Counselor, and The Fifth Estate – centered on a singular theme: that the choices we make to seek, reveal, or bury the truth – any truth – affect our futures irrevocably.

At some point, in all three pieces, some character ruminates on the pointless energy of grief and regret and that, once the decision is made to lie or to tell the truth, events are set in motion that can never be undone. The heroes and anti-heroes of these works are all haunted by truth – revealing it, hiding it, weaponizing it – and, as a consequence, we audience members depart the darkened theatre wrestling with the specters created by our own life choices, from childhood to the present.