If faith can move mountains, chalk it up to those intrinsically human attributes known as hope and optimism. To philosophers and psychologists, they are engines of aspiration that enable us to face the most daunting and seemingly insurmountable hurdles of life, from averting the catastrophic effects of rising sea levels with a climate-change-denying president in the White House to simply grappling with our own mortality.
It is the latter challenge that tests the resilience of the two families in I Carry Your Heart, Georgette Kelly’s emotionally pitched supernatural drama about hope and loss. The play is receiving an elegant West Coast debut at Bootleg Theater as part of the Hope Festival, three days of play readings, panels and symposia organized by philosophers Andrew Chignell and Samuel Newlands as an initiative of their three-year Hope & Optimism research project. The play performs for three more weeks.
The center of the evening is Elayn J. Taylor’s vibrant portrayal of Debra Wilder, a celebrated novelist left “brain-dead” by a massive stroke that triggers the medical harvesting of her still-healthy organs. Dressed in a celestial-looking nightgown (courtesy of costumers Ann Closs-Farley and Alyssa Gonzalez), Taylor hovers over the action (on designer Sibyl Wickersheimer’s plywood conversation-pit set) as Debra’s now disembodied consciousness goes about the unfinished business of reconciling with her grieving, albeit estranged adult daughter Phoebe (Joanna Bronson).
But Debra’s physical demise also gives a second chance at life to cardiac patient Tess (the dynamic Christine Dunford), who is rushed to the hospital to receive the novelist’s heart. Although Tess’ wife Lydia (Elizabeth Liang) and stepson Josh (Mateo Mpinduzi-Mott) rally around the patient, the family is thrown off balance when the transplant establishes a sympathetic link between donor and recipient that soon has Tess channeling Debra in notes to Phoebe dictated in the novelist’s distinctive poetic voice.
Other threads include an unpublished memoir delivered to Phoebe in which Debra attempts to explain how her “crazy quilt” bohemian existence and all-consuming passions ultimately resulted in Phoebe’s emotional abandonment. And Michael Bates appears as the sympathetic boyfriend doctor that bears the brunt of Phoebe’s resentment towards the mother.
If that all sounds like a familiar if more secular spin on the old Della Reese TV confection Touched by an Angel, it’s only because no synopsis can capture the sweet lyricism of a script that is also doing double duty as a dramatic exegesis of hope in Immanuel Kant’s Third Critique. The play’s title and even its contours are taken from E.E. Cummings’ rapturous metaphysical love poem “[i carry your heart with me (i carry it in],” and Kelly’s writing fairly rings with Cummings’ offbeat musicality and language.
Deeply felt performances by a flawless ensemble together with the painterly chiaroscuro of lighting designer Brandon Baruch and a transcendently window-rattling, low-frequency score by sound designer John Zalewski all up the ante. But it is director Jessica Hanna’s fine compositional eye and the crispness of her seamless staging that deftly avoids the material’s melodramatic tug while delivering its intellectual lesson with a persuasive and almost operatic appeal.
Bootleg Theater, 2220 Beverly Blvd., Westlake; through June 10. (213) 389-3856, bootlegtheater.org.