If you thought graphic violence, insightful prose, and Jason Mraz covers can’t exist in the same play, think again. Big Love, now playing at Signature Theatre, has all of the above—and still manages to make room for tomato throwing and trampolines.
Still, like many plays, Big Love is centered on a wedding—fifty of them, to be precise. Lydia (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and her forty-nine sisters have been pledged by their father to marry their cousins. Wisely, playwright Charles Mee simplifies the onstage number of runaway brides, focusing on Lydia and her sisters, strong-willed Thyona (Stacey Sargeant) and sweet Olympia (Libby Winters). Clad in stained and tattered wedding dresses, each sister has a different point of view on men. Thyona can’t stand them, Olivia loves them, and Lydia falls somewhere in between. But all three women do not want to be forced into marriage, and have left Greece for Italy. There they hope to find a haven in the home of Piero (Christopher Innvar), as his mother Bella (Lynn Cohen) takes pity on the girls’ plight. But the sisters are not alone for along, when the wannabe grooms arrive–repelling from helicopters, no less.
The men, like the women, are represented by only three brothers. Constantine (Ryan-James Hatanaka) is their leader, and is determined to fulfill their family’s marriage contract. His brothers Oed (Emmanuel Brown) and Nikos (Bobby Steggert) are in full support, especially since Nikos has feelings for Lydia. As the brides and grooms fight for and against the wedding, Lydia and Nikos form a dangerous connection across enemy lines.
Inspired by Aeschylus’ play The Danaids, Big Love has some trappings of ancient Greek drama. There’s enough spectacle to make Aristotle proud, with a bed of flowers hanging from the theater’s ceiling, wall-to-wall projections, and musical numbers that include songs by Leslie Gore and Michael Jackson. (The musical numbers were also a wonderful way to remind us why we love to see Bobby Steggert and Rebecca Naomi Jones in Broadway musicals.) But the play has a style and sensibility that is unique to Charles Mee, with dialogue that is closer to poetry than prose.* This exchange between Nikos and Lydia shows the verse-like quality of the dialogue:
I want a love really that’s all-consuming
that consumes my whole life
Sometimes people don’t want to fall in love.
Because when you love someone
it’s too late to set conditions.
You can’t say
I’ll love you if you do this
or I’ll love you if you change that
because you can’t help yourself
and then you have to live
with whoever it is you fall in love with
however they are
and just put up with the difficulties you’ve made for yourself
because true love has no conditions.
That’s why it’s so awful to fall in love.
Mee tackles many challenging concepts at once: the nature of romantic love, of course, is prominent in Big Love, but there’s also themes of justice and forgiveness, especially in the play’s powerful final scene. Other memorable moments involve the brides and grooms proclaiming their issues with gender roles and how they relate to them, repeatedly throwing themselves to the floor. The violence of their careening and crashing bodies physicalizes their conflicting expectations and desires—and it’s all at once engaging and shocking.
Despite all of its disparate elements, Big Love succeeds in telling a story about love trying to conquer all.
“Big Love” runs until March 15th. For more information, click here.