Sean Daniels, the former artistic director of the Merrimack Repertory Theatre, chose a fitting conclusion to his career in Lowell with "The Haunted Life," the latest in a series of truly notable 40th-anniversary plays.
Daniels wrote the script for this play based on an unfinished novella by Jack Kerouac, one of Lowell's most famous sons and an icon of the Beat Generation. As Daniels' play opened in Lowell this past weekend, Daniels was already posting pictures on social media of his family starting their new life in Phoenix.
Kerouac devotees -- and there are many in the Merrimack Valley -- will undoubtedly enjoy discovering this work, which was lost for nearly 60 years until it appeared on the Sotheby's auction block. Daniels retained the cadence of Kerouac's writing in the script.
The play opens in Lowell in the summer of 1941 on the eve of the U.S. entry into World War II. Peter Martin, played by MRT newcomer Raviv Ullman, contemplates his future along with his best friend, Garabed, played by a now-familiar MRT face, Vichet Chum.
The two young men spend that summer debating the romance of going off to war. Garabed can think of no better adventure than answering his country's call to service when it comes. Martin, whose story is loosely based on Kerouac's own life, wants to return to Boston College to pursue his goals as a writer and philosopher. Both are sure they want to leave the constraints of a life lived in Lowell.
"I have 100 lives to live," Peter Martin declares.
In the background, however, is the spirit of his older brother, who left home when he was young and has severed ties with his family. In front of him is his father, Joe Martin, whose racism may be the reason his older son is gone. The younger Martin fights with his father about Roosevelt, immigrants, Jews and blacks. The father's rants are all-too familiar to a 2019 audience tearing at the scabs of the nation's ongoing racism and anti-immigrant feelings.
Joe Colodner, who has performed in several MRT productions, plays Joe Martin to cringe-worthy perfection, delivering opinions that should make contemporary audiences squirm. Tina Fabrique, who is African American, plays Joe Martin's wife, Vivienne, with what must be a high degree of fortitude and professionalism during his bigoted tirades.
As the second act opens, Peter Martin and Dick Sheffield, another friend, are sitting on the deck of a Merchant Marine vessel. Once again, war is the topic of discussion. It is now 1942, and war rages. Sheffield wants to be closer to that action. Martin does not. They part ways with Martin heading to New York City to write.
Martin's life begins to spin out of control with alcohol, as his father's had spun out of control with gambling.
Martin's girlfriend, Eleanor, joins him in New York but is driven away by his drinking. Martin learns of his estranged brother's death and the deaths of his friends. And then his father's terminal illness forces him to visit his parents.
Daniels' script covers a lot of territory in 1942, and, at times, the compressed timeline may confuse the audience.
A great deal seems to happen as Martin's life seems to hit warp speed after he leaves the Merchant Marines and his reunion with his parents.
Audience members may also lose some of the dialog among characters -- in particular, with Ullman's rapid delivery of Peter Martin's lines.
Overall, though, the performance engages the audience with a compelling tale of an era that is fading from American memory. Fewer and fewer members of the Greatest Generation are alive to share their stories.
"The Haunted Life" runs through April 14 at MRT.