Déjà vu is a singular experience shared by all. We all know how that ephemeral sensation can be maddening and heartbreaking all at once. Technically, of course, déjà vu has nothing to do with past lives, kindred spirits or wandering souls, but talking about the corpus callosum and misfiring synapses is a sure fire way to get you labeled as an anti-romantic and ensure you’ll never get past a first date. Our lives are full of repeated patterns, romantic or otherwise, and there is a simple beauty in that repetition. For anyone who has played a song on repeat just to feel the sting of those perfect lyrics again or gazed one more time at a photograph in order to relive what will never be, they know that déjà vu may be chemical, but memory and loss are a combination so addictively potent that we may as well pay for the privilege. This is where Meg Sullivan and Wilbury Theatre Group come in.
The New Works program at Wilbury Group was designed to give audiences the experience of new plays in the workshop stage, incorporating feedback from rehearsals and performances and restaging pieces incorporating those changes. Veja Doolittle: Live in Concert was workshopped in April and is currently in full performance at Wilbury’s performance space on Broad Street. Directed with a delicate edge by Susie Schutt, Meg Sullivan’s one-woman show is part concert, part monologue show and, with judicious multimedia assistance, a charming and melancholy piece of theater that leaves us with a tear in our beer and some familiar music to hum on the ride to the next bar.
Recycling some of the technical elements left over from Cabaret, audiences are once again welcomed into a nightclub scene with scattered tables, chairs, couches and candles. The hanging lights are still in place over the audience as, this time, the Southside Cultural Center stage is actually used to full effect. Bluesy country vocalists fill the preshow air as we ponder the setting – a single chair, a microphone, a steamer trunk, cowboy boots and an autoharp in the center. Off to stage left stands another microphone (this one of vintage variety) and a costume rack. Upstage is a white wall with the projected announcement of Veja Doolittle’s impending appearance and stage right is bare, all illuminated in a smoky blue nightclub haze by Dan Fisher’s simple, yet effective lighting design. These areas are distinct places not only for our eyes, but for each facet of Veja’s mind as she takes us on a short, sweet little trip down a meandering lane that leads from Austin to everywhere and nowhere but, for now, Providence will do just fine.
The performance begins with Veja suiting up prior to entering the nightclub stage. She dons an Elvis suit in a timeworn series of repeated moves that at first confuse, as if she may be subject to some sort of preshow dance ritual or an OCD-riddled tic, but we come to realize that Veja is not really there. She is a memory of herself, repeating flight patterns of heartache that wait for a final landing. When she does take the stage, she alternates bittersweet stories of her time on the road, memories of her past life with her former band and the places she has been to since. Her songs, she reminds us, are familiar – “Walking After Midnight” and a heart wrenching “Always On My Mind” stand out in particular – but it is her stories that pull us in. She bemoans the breakup of her band and misses her old friends and clues us in to some of the touchstones of her sense of wandering loss. When these moments become too hard to verbalize, she literally takes off, leaving the microphone to move yet again in repeated patterns of almost absent dance as projected films accentuate her thoughts. She returns to us again, back to the microphone and her road-weary tunes and we begin to see more and more behind her sadness.
“All of the waves, repeating slightly with a difference,” ponders Veja as she tells us of her love of the ocean and about her happiness at being once more in Rhode Island. She delights in researching each city she plays, but these cities are secondary, even tertiary markets for low-paid entertainers scraping a living. This town is divine intervention, she tells us, and each town is connected by fleeting memory of what once was or what could be if only, if only, if only. “Self-determination and Providence” sums up Veja Doolittle, for she will continue on to the next town and the next, but for these two weeks in June, she has been dropped here in our city. If you can manage to catch a hold of it, Veja is a nice memory indeed.
The Wilbury Theatre Group presents Veja Doolittle: Live in Concert, a new work by Meg Sullivan, directed by susie Schutt. June 19-28 at the Southside Cultural Center, 393 Broad Street, Providence. Visit thewilburygroup.org for tickets and more information.