The Quest for the Meaning of One’s Life
by: Carole Di Tosti
Employee of The Year, written and directed by Abigail Browde and Michael Silverstone with original songs by David Cale, is 600 HIGHWAYMEN’s intriguing offering that is part of the lineup at The Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival 2016. With a cast of five young girls, who represent and usher forth major turning points in the life of J, we are led through the passages of a woman’s quest for self-definition and fulfillment from the age of three until the age of 80.
J’s life is turbulent, confounding and disordered. Every time she attempts to achieve a state of rest in her soul, she is catapulted into another volcano of pain, searching torments and diffuse realities. Her life has been withheld from her through no fault of her own, and she has been living in a fog of lies which she spends her entire existence attempting to clear.
J’s roller coaster life first takes a hairpin turn into approximate truth when, at seventeen, her house burns down and her mother dies. The values and meaningful comforts that defined her disintegrate in the ashes of broken dreams: she discovers she is mourning a stranger. The woman who raised her was not her mother, and J was never rooted by adoption in a secure family identity to inherit the house and land.
When J is placed in foster care with strangers who “knew her mom,” the disturbing and amorphous reality unsettles her. She refuses to accept her new home after she discovers a photo which is a clue to her real mother and true identity. From that moment on, J becomes a runaway. With a runaway’s voracious hope to seek her true identity, background and self, and with the faith that she can achieve fulfillment, she travels the country in an unremitting and never-ending quest to meet her mother and father face-to-face. She will discover why they abandoned her.
As we journey through J’s life watching her take on the age personas from her teen years, to her twenties and thirties when she has her own son, Charlie, she physically changes (represented by the different girls taking on the role of J), but we are reminded how her interior soul atmosphere is the same. The stasis is unnerving. We are perplexed by her refusal to accept wisdom which others give her that could inspire self-definition, self-love and self-acceptance. Despite friendships she makes, despite her love and able parenting of her son, she is fixed in her impossible quest, unable to overcome the trauma of her mother’s rejection. She searches blindly and faithfully for a truth which we feel may never come.
Browde and Silverstone have created an amazing work with Employee of the Year. The performances are absorbing and the audience was mesmerized throughout as we gazed on the acutely lit, perfectly square cream-colored acting area where the young actresses portraying J’s various personas at times gestured with emphasis and, at all times, acted with lyrical intensity.
Through the lovely child voices of these young actresses, which in various segments of J’s wanderings break into poetic songs, we are reminded of many themes that pertain to all our lives. Like J, we pass through life’s stages as both adults and children who are continually searching for answers and reasons why our parents behaved the way they did. In J’s life, as in ours, there are moments of sheer beauty and clarity when we allow hope to shine through and we believe that around the next bend of the road, if we only head in a particular direction, we will achieve what we have sought: the security of being with one we believe must love us unconditionally. Like J, we attempt to define who we are relying on our heritage. It is an irony that this may be our biggest blindness. We are individually unique and can understand only ourselves if we allow the wisdom of self-love and self-respect to root in our souls.
Employee of the Year is innovative, electric, absorbing. The 600 HIGHWAYMEN theater company’s approach washes over one to probe and jolt until personal revelation breaks through. If you enjoy being challenged toward self-discovery, this production is a must see as part of Under the Radar Festival 2016 at The Public Theater. Performances run from Saturday, January 9 through Sunday, January 17th. Running time, 70 minutes. Tickets are $25.00 for general admission. Check the website for the times and to purchase tickets: http://www.publictheater.org/
Photos by Maria Baranova