It’s a story of loss, gains and growing pains.
“Before You Were Alive,” Beth Gilleland’s 80-minute one-act that premiered Friday at the Illusion Theater in Minneapolis, chronicles a woman’s unexpected path to motherhood.
It’s understated and sincere with touches of wit and treacle.
Playwright and actor Gilleland has been a theater artist in the Twin Cities for decades, both writing shows such as “Sisters of Swing” and performing in the works of others. She gets revealingly autobiographical in “Alive,” in which she is accompanied on flute and saxophone by young Chicago-based jazzman DB Carlson.
Under the no-fuss direction of Illusion Theater executive producing director Michael Robins, “Alive” offers a series of colorful, episodic vignettes about a woman’s experiences as she dates a widower with a 4-year-old boy. The boy’s mother, a fan of Gilleland’s who often attended her shows, dies relatively young, leaving the boy’s father a solo parent with a dog and a daughter from another mother. (The show raises a few gnarly questions but shies away from answering them.)
Kids have no filter and the boy, grieving and confused, flatly asks Gilleland, “Are you my new mom?”
That question comes after an early date with the boy’s father. (Gilleland does not give them names, keeping it to “Boy” and “The Boy’s Father”; it’s understandable, given that there’s a big reveal at the end of “Alive,” but still impersonal.)
Gilleland animates her stories by walking around the Illusion stage, which is set up like a living room with a love seat and a white rug. She pauses from time to time to take sips of water or to rest while Carlson plays rustic, fairy-tale-esque pieces on the flute.
It’s like she has had the audience over to her home and is inviting us into her life.
Some of the details are unforgettable. After another date, she ended up at her new beau’s place, falling asleep in his bed between him and the boy. When Gilleland awoke the next morning, her back was soaking wet. Now, she really was initiated into the family. The kid had peed on her.
For every detail that may make a viewer go eew, there are matching moments of light and levity. One bit includes the boy’s observations about the theory of evolution.
“Alive” falls into a rich raconteur heritage in the Twin Cities — think Kevin Kling and the now-disgraced Garrison Keillor. But the show departs from that tradition in that it is a folksy work that also is structured like a jazz concert.
Carlson has a big sax solo toward the end of “Alive,” blowing his mellow tones to the rafters. That unexpected showstopper underscores the oodles of metaphors that “Alive” ladles from jazz.
Gilleland’s stories are all about taking what you have and making the best of it — about being nimble as you craft something beautiful from ad hoc pieces.
In the particular and in the general, that’s what it takes to be “Alive.”