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Refreshing, Humorous and Visually Striking: Erin Courtney’s “I Will Be Gone”

Courtesy of Actors Theatre of Louisville


Visually striking and refreshing in tone, Erin Courtney’s “I Will Be Gone” examines the awkwardness and uncertainty surrounding death, grieving, the supernatural, and how and when life goes on. This dark comedy is the third premiering production of the 39th Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.

After her mother Theresa (Lexi Lapp) dies, 17-year-old Penelope (Amy Berryman) goes to live with her aunt Josephine (Birgit Huppuch) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Everyone in the small town, which is next to a ghost town, is haunted by someone or something. There’s Elliot (Seth Clayton), Penelope’s awkward crush, who is battling addiction to oxycontin; Liam (Alex Moggridge), the mayor of the town and Josephine’s first boyfriend, who is still desperately holding on to his youth; and Liz (Rachel Leslie), Liam’s wife, who grows tired of her husband’s antics and small-town living.

These tensions are kept mostly in check until Jim (Triney Sandoval), the “one homeless person living in town,” dies during an earthquake while he had been sleeping in the ghost town. Jim had once been a promising physicist with whom Josephine, Theresa and Liam were friends. Yet after he went to Berkeley, he had a schizophrenic breakdown at 19. Upon returning to his hometown, he refused to sleep indoors and just spent his days walking.

After Jim’s death, Josephine lives in guilt that she ignored him after his mental illness emerged, and is convinced that he is haunting her home, Liam and Liz’s marriage grows increasingly rocky, and Penelope is left to find the line between “acceptance and giving up.”

Scenic and media design by Andrew Boyce and Phillip Allgeier elevate “I Will Be Gone” to awe-inducing effect, contributing greatly to the intrinsic haunting nature of the play. A hanging platform that features a diorama of Bodie, the ghost town, on the top and a screen that flickers with various configurations of the sky on the bottom, is an ingenious way to transform the bare Bingham theatre.

Pulsing with raw anticipatory energy, a deliberate sense of place, and a John Hughes’ coming of age vibe, Courtney’s writing deftly considers the many aspects of death in a light-handed, yet evocative way.

While initially seemingly slow on character development-- and interrupted by two bouts of technical difficulties-- as “I Will Be Gone” unfurls, the perspective shifts from living exclusively in the past or present to the ties that bind these two states together. Director Kip Fagan’s sense of timing lends itself greatly to the refreshingly humorous survey of death, and the result is beautiful, chilling, and promises to prompt discussion from Humana Festival attendees.

“I Will Be Gone” runs through April 12 at Actors Theatre of Louisville.