Is Life Worth Living?

This obscure Irish comedy really answers the question: Why do we need theatre?

Shall we take in a play?: Gabriel Peña and Alexandra Russo
Shall we take in a play?: Gabriel Peña and Alexandra Russo (Photo courtesy of Bret Brookshire)

Is Life Worth Living?

The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 478-5282
Through July 14
Running Time: 2 hr.

As I stepped out of Different Stages' production of Lennox Robinson's 1933 Irish quandary Is Life Worth Living?, I found myself wondering why we go to the theatre. We watch plays for any number of reasons: to engage emotionally, to experience the divine, to be entertained, to see great art, to empathize, to be seen by others, to learn about ourselves. Theatre, according to my former philosophy professor Paul Woodruff, is "the art by which human beings make human action worth watching," and, he argues, individuals and societies need theatre to flourish. (See Woodruff's beautiful book The Necessity of Theatre for more on that.) But what happens after the lights go down? Can theatre change the current of one's life?

The simple, good-natured Irishmen in Robinson's sharp interwar play certainly think so. Their peaceful seaside resort town goes up in metaphorical flames when a pair of heady, haughty dramatists arrives at the Twohig family inn with a repertoire of "high class" dramas, "nothing but serious stuff, Russian plays and that sort of thing." The affected actors aim not to entertain the masses, but to forcibly educate them. "It is a mission," proclaims ringleader Hector De La Mare, "a tremendous mission where the pulpit is the stage and the great dramatists preach the sermons." But after a few weeks of nonstop Ibsen, Chekhov, and Strindberg, strange things start happening: suicides, beatings, murders, political missteps. The townspeople promptly expel the actors and welcome the circus.

The subject matter may be weighty, but this play is undoubtedly a schadenfreude parody, and despite some not-quite-convincing Irish brogues, the spirited cast does well to keep us smiling. Austin newcomers Mary Kennelly and Gabriel Peña as the innkeeper's sister and son, respectively, are standout talents, earning more than their fair share of belly laughs from an enthusiastic audience. I was most impressed with the show's set and costume designers, who stretched their modest budget to effectively transform the Vortex into a 1930s hotel.

Is Life Worth Living? may seem like a curious choice for the finale of Different Stages' 32nd season. Though it saw an off-Broadway revival in 2009, the comedy is not exactly a popular pick for smaller theatres, perhaps because Robinson's specific setting and time pose challenges to actor and audience alike, particularly the issue of Irishness. There's the tricky accents, of course, but even more difficult are the play's constant allusions to Ireland's early Thirties political, economic, and religious turmoil. So why do this play here and now? For me, Different Stages' production highlights our basic need to watch all kinds of theatre. Highbrow dramas are not necessarily the best dramas; sometimes our needs are served just as well at the circus.

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Is Life Worth Living?, Different Stages, Paul Woodruff, The Necessity of Theatre, Mary Kennelly, Gabriel Peña

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