(From L to R Michelle Mountain, Caitlin Cavannaugh, and Casaundra Freeman in a scene from "Never Not Once") Photo courtesy of Sean Carter Photography
Sometimes, all we have is our choices, a sentiment echoed throughout Carey Crim’s stunning “Never Not Once,” The Purple Rose's latest (and possibly best) world premiere. The show premiered back in January and runs through mid-March, and The Purple Rose was kind enough to let me attend one of their “Ford Friday” performances that features a talk-back post show. I’m glad they did, because this is a staggering piece of original theatre and Michigan audiences should be excited they’re getting first dibs.
The magic of “Ford Friday’s” - so I’ve learned – is that the Ford motor company sponsors a discounted performance for the community and allows theatregoers the opportunity to stick around afterwards and ask actors and crew members questions following the performance. I decided to stick around and discovered an interesting tidbit: The Purple Rose picks their shows well in advance of their run dates (roughly two years) – a shocking fact considering the timely “Never Not Once” tackles hot button topics of sexual assault, the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate, and same sex relationships. While some of these topics are still flooding the media, and others have fallen more out of the spotlight, the dialogue of both the performance and the post-show conversation left a surprising impact. In a decade closing around movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp, it feels like Crim’s script (inspired by a friend’s own personal account) couldn’t have existed at a better time.
Taking place in present day Maryland, “Never Not Once” strikes an emotional chord early on with the relationship between Nadine Walker (Casaundra Freeman) and Allison Davis (Michelle Mountain), a lesbian couple living in a laxed suburban neighborhood, finding solace in their careers: Walker is a scientist for NASA and Allison owns and operates a local antique shop. Having these characters standing at the center of the narrative is a nice touchstone throughout the play, presenting a beautiful, yet troubled relationship between two passionate women. Even more touching is the familial bond they share with Eleanor (Caitlin Cavanaugh), Allison’s biological daughter, who is home visiting from Rutgers University with her not-so-frat-boy boyfriend Rob (Jeremy Kucharek) who Nadine memorably nicknames “Naked Man Rob.”
These tender moments early in the show are crucial for setting up the second leg of this 80-minute production in which Eleanore details plans to track down her biological father of whom she’s never met. While Rob and Nadine are supportive of her efforts, the plan sparks criticism from her mom who says she can’t remember the details or name of her daughter’s potential father. Despite it all, Eleanore ultimately decides to search for her father, and eventually she is led to a financial consultant named Doug (Rusty Mewha). After one look at his eyes, she is certain he is her long-lost father.
At the risk of not revealing too much, I’ll steer away from spoilers in respect to those yet to attend the production. But I will say that Crim marinates her show with rich and empowering monologues that don’t feel tacked on but rather, they feel earned. Freeman, Mountain, and Cavanaugh excel their relationships so beautifully, at times I almost wished the script excluded the men and allowed Crim’s vivid descriptions to sell what we can’t see. For as rewarding as the three females leads are, characters like Jeremy Kurcharek’s Rob seem to exist in the same space without much to offer (save for a minor standoff with another character late in the show). Mewha’s Doug, on the other hand, is crucial enough to get a pass, as he presents a more layered character and thus offers a more daunting and emotional performance.
Overall, “Never Not Once” keeps the focus on these strong leading ladies. They’re a tough bunch, and their characters bring a great diversity to the stage, both in personality and in dialogue. Together, their strengths as characters and performers fall hand in hand to create wonderfully natural relationships. The world needs more authors like Crim whose character choices and paths are gripping from start to finish, offering an emotional rollercoaster that hardly lets off the gas. This is the type of show that will be talked about in theatre circles for quite some time, and one can hope it sparks enough momentum to play across the nation.
Of course, The Purple Rose has assembled the right crew to pull off the inaugural run. Director Guy Sanville, the artistic director of The Rose, has an eye for staging and masterfully pulls out the underlying motives of each character, never weighing down the text with excessive movement. Most of the staging is subtle, quick, and effective, and Noele Stollmack’s lighting design molds seamlessly with Sarah Pearline’s fixed suburban scenic design. If the idea was to feel like we could be sitting in our own living room facing these types of circumstances, I think the crew succeeded.
It helps that the story is rich and filled with incredible self-discovery; watching the evolution of Allison and Nadine’s relationship provides enough fodder to sustain its own play. Crim subtly peppers small tidbits about each character’s life throughout the show- we find out that Allison had a sickness that goes unnamed, and Nadine often reminiscences about the bond she had with her father, thus giving Eleanore’s crusade more weight. We’re rooting for her the whole show, despite that some of our discoveries do not always lead to happy endings.
Cavannaugh, a resident artist with the Rose, is given plenty to chew on and manages to find an impressive range portraying Eleanore not just emotionally, but physically, as she goes through all kinds of anxiety-induced spasms (which she controls remarkably). Meanwhile Freeman is first-rate playing the literal rocket scientist as she tries to piece together Allison’s traumatic past. Finally, Mountain almost blows the roof off the theatre with one fierce monologue that leaves you hanging on every word (you’ll know the one when you see it).
A vital piece of contemporary theatre, “Never Not Once” is a new voice for women, and The Purple Rose provides a solid outlet for Crim’s impassioned story. Aside from providing inspiration to those identifying with themes in this show, Guy Sanville’s production has a loud beating heart that speaks volumes to the slice of theatregoers who are fortunate enough to see it now. I can only hope the world is ready to listen.
IF YOU GO:
Regular performances of Never Not Once are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 3pm and Sunday matinees at 2pm .
Ticket prices range from $23 to $47 with special discounts for students, seniors, teachers, members of the military and groups (12+). For more information or to make reservations call (734) 433-7673 or click the link here