Sam, played by Ian Carlsen, left, and Tony, played by Lukis Crowell, in a scene from “Read to Me.” Aaron Flacke photo

Actors floating above the stage will often earn a “wow” from theatergoers. In the latest play from Portland Stage, tears may figure in the mix of responses as well.

Brendan Pelsue’s “Read to Me,” the 2018 winner of the company’s Clauder Competition, is having its world premiere production. The play employs imaginatively conceived physical and literary mechanisms to tell the story of the last days of a terminally ill child and the impact he has on those who come to know him.

With a set (designed by Anita Stewart) inspired by a “magical realism,” director Rory Pelsue has brought his playwright brother’s distinctively offbeat theatrical concept to life. Apart from the production’s embrace of special effects, though, it is the essentially thought-provoking and warmhearted poetry of the play, with a few laughs thrown in, that will likely stay with those who see it.

We meet Tony (played by seventh-grader Lukis Crowell), a feisty youngster bound to a hospital bed and knowing, though he hasn’t been told, that his earthly end is drawing near. He delights in challenging adult deceptions of all kinds. His coughing bouts, bathed in blue light (design by Bryon Wynn), are harrowing.

The child awkwardly bonds with a reading tutor named Lawrence (Esaú Mora) who’s a bit of a goof and not ready for the hard questions posed by the boy. Lawrence also tangles with Tony’s dad Sam (Ian Carlsen) as they both struggle with the “time bomb” that is Tony.

The boy connects with eccentric characters from afar through postal correspondence established with the help of Lawrence. Wires and pulleys take and deliver the letters while Lawrence often rides his bike on a track at the rear of the stage. A giant clock at center stage suggests the relentless passage of time toward the untimely end of an unfinished life.

Among Tony’s contacts, an elderly lady from Alaska (Grace Bauer, who also plays Tony’s insightful nurse) has troubles of her own, while an IBM employee named Elmo (Tom Ford), who is studying to become a shaman, is drawn to the youngster’s simple, yet penetrating, communications.

The 80-minute, one-act play gets at the toll exacted by “the things we keep from each other” through extended reflections from all concerned. On opening night, Elmo’s speech about the nature of silence was particularly effective, as was the nurse’s final declarations on the relative responses to death based on the age of the deceased.

It’s not an easy job for the actors, not only because of the content of the play but because they must stay frozen on stage for long periods while action takes place elsewhere. In that action, though, each provides a bit of reality to the highly stylized world in which they have been placed. This ultimately uplifting new play is most rewarding when its underlying human sympathies break beautifully through.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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