Photo: Charles Erickson

Photo: Charles Erickson

By Tulis McCall

Charles Mee lives on a planet very near the one that Bill Irwin calls home. I don’t know where it is, but I do know I have visited it, several times. With Big Love now at the Pershing Square Signature Center, he has achieved lift-off once again.

Big Love is based on the The Danaids by Aeschylus. Fifty perspective brides are fleeing fifty pursuing grooms. In Mee’s version, the time is the present and the place is a stunning location designed by Bret J. Banakis. It is white and clean and – I was about to say serene – but who are we kidding? Once the trio of sisters – Lydia (Rebecca Naomi Jones), Olympia (Libby Winters) and Thyona (Stacey Sargeant) – arrives on site, the serenity factor is exchanged for chaos. After a throbbing rendition of You Don’t Own Me (I can only hope that Lesley Gore was listening from another plane) they meet the matriarch of the family, Bella (Lynne Cohen) who weaves a tale of her 13 sons that stops these women in their tracks.

Soon, the young man who originally met them , Giuliano (Preston Sadleir) returns with his uncle, the owner of the manse, Piero (Christopher Innvar) to give them haven. “Consider us refugees,” they tell him, “from Greece. We are here and we need help. N-O-W. Who knows what will happen if you do not act????”

When Piero leaves the women chant a diatribe against all men. Men are a biological mistake and end up useless or devious, the women shout. Over this din comes a helicopter and the very same men that these women loathe arrive on the scene by slithering down ropes. Nikos (Bobby Steggart), Constantine (Ryan-James Hatanaka) and Oes ( Emmanual Brown) have come to stake their claim in person. When the women do not succom to “reason” Constantine tells them

The future is going to happen, Thyona,
whether you like it or not.
You say, you don’t want to be taken against your will.
People are taken against their will every day.

Piero returns and invites the men inside to work things out and the women go a little ballistic, hurling themselves about the stage in a most unladylike fashion. Soon we meet the weekend guests Ekeanor (Ellen Harvey) and Leo (Nathaniel Stampley) who need little encouragement to prepare for a wedding. Leo will even do duty as the father of a bride if called upon. These two are exuberant and oozing life with all its possibilities.

Time flies on. We hear of love unattained (Guliano) and love found and treasured (Bella). Lydia and Nikos find their way to one another – the other four not so much. The wedding is planned and carried out, the sisters agreeing that they will murder their husbands when the ceremony is over. Which is one way to get out of the deal. Wedding happens. Two of the three sisters keep their word. Lydia and Nikos are either smart or blind, depending on who is doing the talking.

Bella winds up the evening with a loving treatise on loving.
For we all live together
and come to embrace
the splendid variety of life on earth
good and bad
sweet and sour
take it for what it is: the glory of life.

Blessings are bestowed on anyone who will listen. We are encouraged to live and love and carry on. Flashbulbs for the group shot. The bouquet and garter are tossed into the audience. 

The wedding party leaves and we are left to screw our heads and hearts back into place. Because that is what Mee does. He switches your head and heart positions. And the best part is that you never QUITE get them back in place the way they were before. Excellent. Most excellent.

Big Love – By Charles Mee; directed by Tina Landau

WITH: Emmanuel Brown (Oed), Lynn Cohen (Bella), Ellen Harvey (Eleanor), Ryan-James Hatanaka (Constantine), Christopher Innvar (Piero), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Lydia), Preston Sadleir (Giuliano), Stacey Sargeant (Thyona), Nathaniel Stampley (Leo), Bobby Steggert (Nikos) and Libby Winters (Olympia).

Sets by Brett J. Banakis; costumes by Anita Yavich; lighting by Scott Zielinski; sound by Kevin O’Donnell; projections by Austin Switser; fight direction by Rick Sordelet and Christian Kelly-Sordelet; production stage manager, Lori Lundquist; associate artistic director, Beth Whitaker; general manager, Gilbert Medina; director of production, Paul Ziemer. Presented by Signature Theater Company, James Houghton, artistic director; Erika Mallin, executive director. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, Clinton, 212-244-7529, Through March 15. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.