Peggy Friesen in Grand Horizons (Brian Paulette)
Bess Wohl’s Grand Horizons, currently onstage at Kansas City Actors Theatre, is an affably entertaining family comedy. The show offers more than a few deep laughs, using an almost sitcomish framework to explore issues of identity, unexplored potential, and a loss of sense of self as we age. But aside from a few bursts of tender poignancy, Wohl’s script is fairly thin, choosing to mostly skim the surface of these big subjects and landing closer to a character study (via a group of characters that have been fleshed out to extremely varying degrees) than a deeper exploration of the human condition. In that way, the play largely rests on the charisma and chemistry of the cast performing it. And fortunately, KCAT’s cast makes this production a total joy.
Grand Horizons centers on 80-ish-year old Nancy (a divine Peggy Friesen) who, over a meal like any other in the kitchenette of their aggressively mundane unit in the titular independent living community, informs her husband of 50 years that she would like a divorce. This startling declaration makes up the opening moments of the show, followed by her husband Bill’s (Victor Raider-Wexler) casually succinct reply: “Alright.”
Cut to panicked chaos as Bill and Nancy’s adult children have descended on the retirement community with the singleminded goal of getting to the bottom of what happened. (If they can do so without actually having to see their parents as whole and complicated people, all the better. In reality, the goal here is less true understanding and more getting things back to normal, without caring that normal was the problem to begin with.)
Each character gets their time to peel back at least a few of their layers. There’s the eldest son, Ben (Craig Benton), who doesn’t understand why his pragmatic approach to fixing problems (which mostly takes the form of paying for things) isn’t more appreciated as a genuine form of caring. Younger son Brian (Matt Leisy), like so many people who proclaim loudly and often about their uncommonly high emotional intelligence, is actually the most emotionally draining person in any room. Multiple characters call him “ridiculous” and they’re not wrong.
Ben’s wife Jess (Amy Attaway) takes a therapist’s approach that borders on caricature, insisting Bill and Nancy jump right into physical intimacy-building exercises by about minute five of the play, right there in their crowded kitchenette (designed to bland perfection by Joe Burkard). Attaway grounds the character, though, with a laser-sharp clarity of good intentions, making even her strongest reactions feel justified. A monologue late in the show is especially riveting as Jess, herself pregnant, rails against the men in the family, taking up the mantle of Nancy’s fiercest defender, only for her extreme protective crusade to morph into a frenzied attempt at self-preservation.
The real focus of the show, though, is on Bill and, most especially, Nancy. Some of the play’s biggest laughs belong to Raider-Wexler, as it takes genuine comedic talents to make Bill’s brand of groan-worthy bawdy dad jokes land. Bill is a through-and-through curmudgeon whose choices and general inattentiveness have deeply hurt his wife but Raider-Wexler makes him fully human—lovable, if not always likable, and definitely understandable.
The real gem here is Friesen, who mines every bit of humor and pathos in Nancy, turning in a performance that is heartwrenching, funny, and unexpected. Nancy is dipping her toes into the idea of exploring 80 years of unexamined potential. Friesen takes a moment-by-moment approach to this overwhelming undertaking and the result is deeply nuanced tenderness.
On top of the charismatic cast, Grand Horizons’ success is bolstered by its brief runtime, realistic design elements, and a light hand from director Dennis D. Hennessy. Some audience members will no doubt leave wanting more, but what’s there is at least plenty to enjoy.
“Grand Horizons,” a production of Kansas City Actors Theatre, runs through September 3 at City Stage, on the lower level of Union Station, 30 W Pershing Rd, Kansas City, MO. For more information, visit www.kcactors.org.