Some Things Stay the Same, Some Things Change – Grief and Loss in ‘Walking the Tightrope’

By Raquel Sanchez
Staff Writer

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“She looked like an ordinary woman, but inside beat the heart of a tightrope walker.” Imagine you are told your grandmother, whom you love dearly, is gone because she joined the circus to walk the tightrope. What kind of imagery does this concoct? A childlike mind might envision clowns and acrobats, cotton candy, and ice-cream cones or the wonder of that grandmother in a sparkly dress, carrying a pink umbrella while walking a tightrope. How could my grandma pass up on such a grand opportunity? But in the midst of these visions, the following thought might also emerge: How can grandma just leave me behind?

Death is a delicate topic for adults to confront, but how is it shared with children?  When a pet dies, how often have we heard parents tell their children, “Oh Miffy ran away,” or “Goldie left for the pet farm to be with her friends,” anything to steer their children from the morbidity of death.  We fear the potential loss of innocence that can come from facing one of the harsh realities of life. Maybe this is why Grandpa Stan (Mark Bramhall) is reluctant to tell his granddaughter Esme (Paige Lindsey White) about her Nanna Queenie’s death. Instead he tells Esme that Nanna Queenie joined the circus.

Written by Mike Kenny and directed by Debbie Devine, Walking the Tightrope is not only aesthetically beautiful but deeply touching and insightful.  The play explores the themes of grief, loss and acceptance while serving to strengthen the bond between a young girl and her grandfather.  Walking the Tightrope was handed to LAb24 to produce without stage directions. This provided them with the freedom to develop the setting, the location, and year of the play and how to present it on stage. They had the freedom to choose, “a small town on the English Seacoast”, in 1959.  Kenny’s written words allow for a stylized production that includes multi-media, live music and heartfelt performances.

Set designer Keith Mitchell created a design that is not only reminiscent of a circus tent, but beautiful in its simplicity. As you walk into the theatre and gaze at the stage, you see a kitchen to your left, a bench center stage and a swing to your right, simple, but as the play begins, through the use of lights and video, you are taken out of the little home to different areas along the English Seacoast. Lighting and video designers Dan Weingarten and Matthew Hill bring life to the play by letting the audience experience Grandpa Stan’s home through the eyes of his granddaughter Esme, as well as the seashore, the arcade, train station and the circus.

John Zalewski’s sound design served to indicate location changes and make characters of inanimate objects like the door, grandfather clock or the ocean waves.  Each location of the house had its own sound that was amplified as Esme searched for Nanna Queenie. As an audience member, I felt Esme’s agitation as the grandfather clock tick-tocked ominously and her excitement as the ocean waves beat the shore. These elements transported me into Esme and Grandpa Stan’s world. I still haven’t left.

Walking the Tightrope explores the themes of grief, loss and acceptance while serving to strengthen the bond between a young girl and her grandfather. Written in verse, the language in Walking the Tightrope is poetic, told like a children’s story but still engaging for the adult audience. I particularly enjoyed Esme’s and Grandpa Stan’s speaking in the third person which transported me to the children’s tales I read as a child. Yet, I felt the heaviness of the material and grieved for both Grandpa Stan’s loss and struggle to keep the truth of Nanna Queenie’s death from Esme, as well as Esme’s strong desire to see her Nanna again.

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Mark Bramhall and Paige Lindsey White were exceptional in their portrayals of Grandpa Stan and Esme. Paige Lindsey White played Esme with a childlike innocence that was not manufactured. I believed she was at least between the ages of 8-11 years old. Playing a child as an adult is not easy, many actors forget that children are people and play children as caricatures.  White plays Esme as a smart child who is slowly figuring out what everyone is trying to hide from her. Mark Bramhall as Grandpa Stan broke my heart. His performance incorporated the grief and loss of losing his wife as well as his fear in having to explain her death to his granddaughter. I also saw the ambivalence and the awkwardness he felt in spending all this time with his granddaughter without his wife. I enjoyed witnessing Esme and Grandpa Stan growing closer and the love and affection that they portrayed was palpable. Bramhall and White made beautiful music together.

Tony Duran (Clown) did a beautiful job of silently and lovingly assisting Grandpa Stan and Esme in their journey of acceptance by providing them with loving reminders of Nanna’s cooking, the beach outings and the yearly rituals that took place when Esme visited. His role was to make them and the audience understand that “some things stay the same, some things change.”

24th Street’s resident experimental theatre company, LAb24 have dedicated themselves to creating shows for young audiences that approach strong, provocative topics that are “appropriate for kids while maintaining the look and emotional depth of adult theatre.” This kind of theatre can be an important tool to educate youth about life. Using theatre and stories to communicate difficult topics can plant seeds of understanding in children’s minds that they can quickly decipher and in their own way, accept.

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Walking the Tightrope

Written by Mike Kenny

Directed by Debbie Devine

24th STreet Theatre
1117 West 24th Street
Los Angeles, CA 90007-1725

Performances: January 26 – March 30, 2013

Tickets ($0.24 to $15) are available online or via phone at 213-745-6516.