SAN DIEGO — There's a single image from "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday" that lingers long after the audience has gone and the San Diego Repertory Theatre's 6th Avenue space is dark and cold again. It comes about mid-play.
The teen-age Rachel is alone on a beach at night, distressed over her father's two-year mourning of his wife's death. The stars are twinkling behind her, the waves are swooshing rhythmically before her, and her mother's ghost is standing just a few inches from the troubled girl.
With a wave of her hand and a faint bell-and-chime flourish, the ghostly Gillian causes a few stars to fall, momentarily distracting Rachel from her sorrow, then wraps her arms gently around her daughter's shoulders.
Rachel is totally unconscious of her mother's presence. But as a halo of light begins to glow about mother and daughter, the separation between living and dead seems insignificant. Rachel smiles, and Gillian's love wafts out into the audience.
Michael Brady's play is filled with simple discoveries like this. Director Joseph Hanreddy has staged them for the Rep without over-gooping the sentimentality, allowing the humor in Brady's characterizations to balance the love-and-healing theme.
The production, well-acted and effectively staged, makes a fine, gentle farewell to the company's Sixth Avenue theater, the last in the converted mortuary chapel before the Rep's move to its Horton Plaza quarters.
With the exception of a few abrupt synthesizer notes here and there, composer-sound designer Victor Zupanc has created a memorable aural feeling for both Gillian's celestial appearances and the sandy Atlantic setting. Mark Donnelly's beach design is detailed down to the rotating wind vanes on a weathered shack.
William Anton plays the grief-stricken David as a youngish intellectual, the professor who quit teaching when his wife died and who moved permanently to the island where he and Gillian spent their summers. He has withdrawn into his pain, gradually closing out his daughter, emerging long enough for morning runs with a 16-year-old neighbor, Cindy, and nightly "conversations" under the stars with Gillian.
The attempts by Rachel (Marjorie Mae Hull) and Gillian's sister Esther to bring David back to a reasonable life form the backbone of Brady's plot.
Hull finds an engaging persona for Rachel, suffering her own confusion of loss but willing to accept an optimistic future.
Melissa Hart is cutely alluring as the 16-year-old with a major crush on her middle-aged neighbor, but her immaturity as an actress occasionally betrays her.
Most supportive--and certainly a major factor in the play's success--are Barbara Murray as Esther and James C. Manley as Esther's husband, Paul. These two are a riot, Murray in a zinging performance that ultimately exposes the soft center beneath Esther's marble-perfect exterior, and Manley as a warmly bizarre, witty man who likes to relate gross trivia worthy of any national tabloid.
Esther and Paul bring in a humor that cuts the play's sugar content to a realistic level. Costumer Claire Henkel deserves a nod for finding just the right touches for Murray's amusing interpretation.
The meddling in-laws introduce Kevin (Kate Frank), the divorcee who may or may not bring David back to social coherence. Frank just barely fits this role, cutting it from the same aggressive fabric that makes up the adventurous Gillian (Darla Cash), an anthropologist who died when she fell from a careless antic on a sailboat mast. Cash is fascinating to watch, moving gracefully from Gillian's earthy wise-cracking to her soft and wise spiritual evocations.
All of these characters are distinctive, possessing qualities which make them acceptable icons for emotions that are so common, so troubling that they might easily have become too trite to swallow.
The first scene was, in fact, a little shaky opening night. We're not sure we want to believe Anton, not convinced his interaction with Rachel and Cindy is genuine, and not quite willing to accept Zupanc's wave sounds or Don Childs' overly bright night lighting.
But soon enough Brady's play sinks in, dancing a soft shuffle across our own buried griefs, memories and sudden lifts of spirit. "To Gillian on Her 37th Birthday" is a very nice way to say goodby to a friend, or to a theater.
"TO GILLIAN ON HER 37TH BIRTHDAY"
By Michael Brady. Directed by Joseph Hanreddy. Scenic designer is Mark Donnelly. Costumes by Claire Henkel. Lighting designer is Don Childs. Composer-sound designer is Victor Zupanc. Stage manager is Hollie Hopson. With William Anton, Marjorie Mae Hull, Melissa Hart, James C. Manley, Barbara Murray, Kate Frank, Darla Cash. Tuesday through Sunday at 8 p.m., through Feb. 16; Thursday through Sunday at 8 p.m., Feb. 20 through March 16; some matinees. At San Diego Repertory Theatre, 1620 6th Ave.