In the midst of unthinkable grief, a mother coping with the death of her son finds an unlikely ally in his former teacher. Intrigued yet horrified at the possibility that someone else is as upset over the death as she as, the two find connection in the midst of chaos.
Reviewed by Ilana Novick
“There are no words.” That's a common enough saying after tragedy, but to the woman known only as Calvin’s Mom (Jan Maxwell), it’s a hurtful cop-out. She’s against funerals, receiving lines, and even the people who think that they’re being kind when they say there are no words (in reference to the tragedy of her son’s death). Invading her mourning is a teacher of her son’s, Paul (Kieran Campion) -- a substitute no less--, whose claim to have had a bond with him angers her (how could he begin to presume he understands?). Still, just as she’s drawn to him because of the shared memory, Substitution finds strength in these interactive memories and what they reveal about grieving and life after another’s death. Paul’s relentless attempts to get Calvin’s Mom to bond with him over their shared loss (despite her adamant refusals) and her hurt responses reveal just how differently people experience grief, even if it’s over the same person. Would such bonding be an insult to the memory of the deceased?
Maxwell plays the mother as understandably haggard and careworn -- hunched over, her neck permanently tense, hair tangled, sweater unwashed, eyes narrowed in a cross between a sneer, and the moment just before the tears come -- her face stuck in the unique mixture of sadness and anger that follows news of death. She meets Paul at Calvin’s school, once a lively place, but now, after the accident, a building-size memorial. The students died on a boat trip and the colors of the set, turquoise and sea foam green, make it seem as if the characters are drowning in the memories of the sea accident.
Paul is as young and full of possibilities as Calvin’s Mother is tired and weary -- all razor sharp cheekbones and gym-toned arms. To top it off, he’s smart and seems to genuinely care about Calvin. Still, he’s jumpy and nervous, talking in a staccato jabber. He’s like a teenager in the midst of a sudden growth spurt, all arms and legs and energy that he doesn’t quite know what to do with. Calvin’s Mom responds to his babbling with a terse “Who the hell are you? You don’t know anything about my son.” Each time Paul offers some memory of Calvin’s interests or mannerisms, especially if it’s one unknown to Calvin’s Mom, she sees it as a slap in the face, an insult to her own memories of her relationship with her son. She’s intensely guarding her own right to mourn, incensed by the idea that a random man might have had a deep bond with her son, maybe even deeper than hers, and so would presume that he could understand what she’s going through. Grief is precious emotional real estate for her, the one thing that gives her power and identity in a time when she is anything but. In spite of her protests, she continues to find excuses to visit Paul at the school, and occasionally smiles and laughs in his presence, even as she questions the appropriateness of their meetings, the age difference, whether she should be allowed to continue her life when her son cannot.
Interspersed are scenes with two teenagers sitting on a school bus seat, on a platform above the area of the stage where Paul and Calvin’s Mom meet. Both will die in the same field trip accident as Calvin. Even dressed in superhero costumes (a teacher’s attempt to add some fun to the classroom), they seem like recognizable teenagers, playing games of predict the future of their classmates, the girl, Jule (Shana Downeswell) a little wise beyond her years, a little snarky (as many television and movie these days), and the guy, a cute Big Man on Campus Type named Dax (Drandon Espinoza), with a similar build to Paul, a little confused by all of Jewel’s philosophical musings, but loves her like a sister anyway. There fun to eavesdrop on and watch, two teenagers in mermaid fins and wings, being sweet to each other when they think no one else is looking.
As fun as Dax and Jule are to watch, it is less clear what their purpose is in the larger context of the play, and this is Substitution’s main weakness, a loose end in an otherwise insightful play. Is it a peek into what the adults will never know about the moments leading up to the accident? Or is it just a chilling glimpse at teenagers having fun, being so utterly themselves, before impending disaster? Are they supposed to be an innocent and more carefree parallel to the older and grieving Jack and Calvin’s Mom? Both are possibilities, but their scenes are over before their relationship is given a conclusion, or their larger purpose explained. Paul and Calvin’s Mom still have a tentative future at the end, however much the guilt over their potential happiness might weigh them down. The gradual melting of Calvin’s Mom’s reserve does not seem like weakness, as she might worry, or settling for a substitute life with a substitute teacher when her first choice life was taken from her. Instead, it’s a sign of strength and of hope, that even if she will always be hurt, she is not without support, or even a substitute teacher who is a real, first choice friend.
Substitution is playing at the SoHo Playhouse,