Meet Sarah. Sarah was in a Starbucks the other day, trying to write, when she heard two people greet each other. One thanked the other for “making time” to meet.
This strikes Sarah as odd, this concept of “making time.” Sarah would very much like to “make time” — or, rather, make time do things. Like stop. Or stretch out one little lump of a moment — like saltwater taffy in that shiny machine you sometimes see in candy stores on beach-town boardwalks — on and on, perhaps into infinity.
Sarah tells us she would like to do this because her life is pretty good right now. She’s a mother to a child so small he’s still in the adorable stage; she’s a daughter to two healthy and loving parents; and she’s a granddaughter to a nearly century-old man who loves old musicals, his long-deceased wife and his granddaughter Sarah.
But all stories need tension, and Sarah’s is a mild but omnipresent existential dread that time will pass and things will get less perfect than they are. So she tries to manipulate time by writing a play — an autobiographical play. The play we are watching. We are gears in her salt-water-taffy machine, helping stave off dread by stretching time and getting to know some of the people in her life, who she tells us about in first-person direct address. They all seem like nice folks.
But our time is precious, too, and “The Great Moment” sometimes prompts an unintentional but inevitable question: Why the hell are we politely sitting here stretching someone else’s time when we could be out in the world making the most of our own? Is this our good deed for the day?
That’s not the kind of question a play should make you ask.
To its credit, “The Great Moment,” by Anna Ziegler (“Photograph 51“), is a world premiere, the fruit of a commission by Seattle Repertory Theatre. Theaters should be commended for cultivating new plays, which is always a risky, but absolutely necessary, move.
Director Braden Abraham has also cobbled together a quality cast, particularly Alexandra Tavares as Sarah. Tavares is a perennial pleasure on Seattle stages, bringing a deep presence but also a light touch — she seems to inhabit roles completely without straining or doing too much, even when the roles are full of temptations to declaim all over the stage. (I’m thinking of her refreshingly earthbound Nina, the country girl who dreams of stage stardom in Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” and her performance as the charming, foppish, sharklike TV journalist David Frost in “Frost/Nixon.”)
Tavares makes acting look easy, but “The Great Moment” doesn’t give her much to work with. Bringing depth and soul to a playwright documenting a slice of her life because it’s going well, and feels a little anxious about her anxiety (a meta-anxiety) about the impermanence of all things, is a challenge too great for Tavares — and, one suspects, most actors. I wonder what an expansive and explosive performer (like, say, Cherdonna Shinatra) could do with the role. It probably wouldn’t be what Ziegler had in mind, but it might be fun to watch.
Greg Mullavey is tender and charming as Max, the grandfather who sees his 100th birthday before the play ends. He sings 1940s songs and recites stanzas from “The Spoon River Anthology” — but he’s also got a spunky streak, growling that “getting old sucks!” and fantasizing about going to the grave of Robert Browning to personally show the poet his contempt for the much-quoted line: “Grow old along with me! The best is yet to be.”
“The Great Moment” also gets a big assist from Eugene Lee as Evan, Sarah’s little boy who asks all the properly awkward questions (“When will grandma and grandpa die? Were you the first person? What happens when forever ends? Will you be alive when I’m a grown-up?”) and tells his mother the proper way to write a play. “What if you bring a toy and what if they want to keep it and you give it to them and and and you say thank you,” he says, demanding she write it down. “That is a really good idea, mom.” (Lee also plays Sarah’s father Jim, but Evan gets better lines.)
The design team properly evokes the softness and comfort of Sarah’s world, the visual equivalent of chamomile tea with a touch of honey: pleasant lights that don’t draw too much attention to themselves (except for a lovely, dense constellation of round paper lanterns hanging from the ceiling) by Robert Aguilar; cozy costumes by Heidi Zamora (cardigans, soft-looking pants, sensible shoes); and a stage divided into three convincingly homey rooms (kitchen, living room, study) by scenic designer Catherine Cornell.
Spoiler alert: At the very end of the play, the audience is offered a few slices of cake.
It’s a cute gesture.
“The Great Moment” by Anna Ziegler. Through Nov. 17; Seattle Repertory Theatre, 155 Mercer St., Seattle; $40-$72; 206-443-2222, seattlerep.org