Miguel Gongora Jr. and Heather Warren in "Going To A Place Where You Already Are." Photo by Daren Scott
While undergoing an MRI to diagnose chronic back pain, Roberta goes into shock. When she is again aware of the world around her, that world is unlike any she’s ever seen, heard or felt. The brights are brighter. The tiniest sounds echo with warmth, comfort, familiarity. She moves in a soft, slow parade of one, scarcely aware of her physicality.
Roberta is … in heaven?
Bekah Brunstetter is hardly the first playwright undaunted enough to confront death and immortality, nor is her one-act drama “Going To A Place Where You Already Are” the first time she’s done so. Her poignant “Be A Good Little Widow” at the Old Globe seven years ago in its way tackled these same eternal questions. But then as now, Brunstetter is intuitive enough to create relatably human characters who ache to answer the unanswerable yet ultimately rely on each other for inner peace.
OnStage Playhouse’s production of “Going To A Place Where You Already Are,” smartly directed by Hannah Logan, addresses its inscrutable subject with tenderness and humor. Prior to her mid-MRI “transporting,” from which she does return to consciousness, Roberta (Jody Catlin) had told her husband of nearly 30 years, Joe (Richard Rivera): “I don’t trust strangers. Even God.” Joe is an equally avowed “dust to dust” atheist who will dismiss Roberta’s account of having gone “to another place” with knowing physiological explanations.
This is the one incongruity in Brunstetter’s otherwise seamless script: Wouldn’t Joe, who adores Roberta, humor her, at least in words, in spite of his dyed-in-the-wool disbelief?
Roberta’s MRI reveals that her body is filled with deadly tumors. Her newly embraced faith in another world is deepened by more dramatized glimpses of it, and of someone already there who’s near and dear to her past. At the same time, Joe’s staunch skepticism becomes rooted in his determination to not lose forever his beloved spouse.
Integrated into Roberta and Joe’s plight is the presence, initially long-distance and briefly in person, of his estranged, extremely neurotic granddaughter Ellie (Heather Warren). Even before Ellie finds herself unable to process Roberta’s fate, she is berating herself as a terrible person. Jonas (Miguel Gongora Jr.), the man she’s just slept with, is in a wheelchair and Ellie is convinced she’ll be uncomfortable and embarrassed if a relationship leads to their being together in public.
The Ellie/Jonas dynamic is more distraction from than adjunct to the urgency of Roberta’s and Joe’s tests of faith and love. Patrick Mayuyu’s appearances as an unseen, wonder-working angel, however, are charming and effective.
“Going To A Place Where You Already Are” is Joe and Roberta’s story, and at OnStage they become everyone’s grandparents. For all his scoffing, Rivera’s Joe is ever devoted to Roberta, and we admire him for it. Catlin’s truly lovely performance transcends what might be for some the unsettling inquiries of the play. If Roberta has glimpsed “the other side,” her joy, as embodied by Catlin, is infectious.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat