Lissette is having a death party. When it’s over, when the guacamole and chips have been consumed and the margaritas downed, she will drink a fatal cocktail that will end with dignity her own life at 38 years old.
Melissa Ross’ The Luckiest at La Jolla Playhouse is neither morbid nor overly sentimental in spite of its subject matter. An outgrowth of the Playhouse’s formative DNA New Work Series, the world-premiere play presents Lissette, portrayed in a bravura performance by Aleque Reid, as a gutsy woman who decides to take as much control over her death as she has her life. In so doing, she enlists the help of her best friend Peter (Reggie D. White) and, more reluctantly, her mother Cheryl (Deirdre Lovejoy). Over 90 minutes, the story moves back and forth in time as all three characters confront a reality that has been known to bring out the best as well as the worst in human beings, including and especially those who care about each other.
Jaime Castaneda, from 2014-2018 the Playhouse’s associate artistic director, returns to helm The Luckiest, which for all playwright Ross’ considerable insight strains to achieve the most effective level of dark comedy. What’s more, none of the dramatic scenes between Lissette and the other two characters is as visceral as the audience-facing monologue she delivers toward the end of the play, when she explains the devastation and hopelessness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It’s a shame that explanation couldn’t have been integrated into the narrative of the play rather than isolated, even if intended so for impact.
Ross does build intricacies into her three principals, however, most of all Lissette, who is no long-suffering saint. She confronts her fate with anger, fear and no small amount of courage. As played by White, Peter is the giving, no-B.S. friend anyone would want in a life-or-death crisis, or even just to enjoy day-to-day living. Lovejoy’s mama Cheryl, played with a Boston accent so heavy it sometimes overpowers her lines, skirts the fringe of caricature, but finds a genuineness about two-thirds through the story.
The Luckiest is most certainly a message play, though it’s an important and affirming one.
(Review originally published in San Diego CityBeat on 7/10/19.)
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David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.