A Brief List of Everyone Who Died

Jacob Marx Rice
Patch of Blue Theatre in association with Finborough Theatre
Finborough Theatre

Vivia Font Credit: Philm
Kathryn Akin and Alejandro De Mesa Credit: Philm
Vivia Font Credit: Philm
Amelia Campbell and Vivia Font Credit: Philm
Siphiwo Mahlentle and Vivia Font Credit: Philm
Amelia Campbell, Vivia Font and Siphiwo Mahlentle Credit: Philm

“The meaning of life is that it stops.” These words, by Franz Kafka, are essentially what Graciela learns in Jacob Marx Rice’s play A Brief List of Everyone Who Died, which is receiving its first staging at the Finborough Theatre, following an online rehearsed reading in 2021.

Scarred by the loss of her dog, Buster, when she was five years old, young Gracie tells her friend, Jordan, “if nobody I like ever goes to heaven, then I won’t ever have to be sad.” But, childhood wishes are not so easily fulfilled. The play does what it says on the tin and in so doing it charts a life in which love and loss are shown to be inextricably and inevitably bound. The more one loves, the greater the loss.

We follow Graciela through all the deaths that make up her life: her grandparents, her parents, aunts and cousins from her father Raul’s extended Puerto Rican family, more pets, and Jordan too, by his own hand when his depression becomes too much to bear. Graciela’s anger explodes when Raul presses her to attend her Tia Sofia’s funeral: “I can’t take any more sadness or fear or... I can’t listen to people lie that life is anything more than constant pain until you die.” Fearing that an accident has taken away the people whom she loves most, she launches at a medic with a violence born from pain.

But, Graciela is resilient and passionate, and droll, too. We see her go to university and become a lawyer, form a relationship with Cass, adopt a child, Melaku, gain a granddaughter, Lily. Life teaches its lessons, and as she and Cass grow old together, and there is more loss as friends pass away and illness strikes, they come to accept that, “people are born. They die. That’s life.”

Cramming a lifetime into 90 minutes is quite a challenge, but Rice controls the structure and pace of his play expertly. Juxtapositions are sharp and telling. At times we move swiftly through the years; elsewhere there’s a poignant pause—as when eight-year-old Gracie and Jordan ‘play’ at funerals; Raul calls Grace at university to tell her that their dog, Bella, must be put down; 27-year-old Graciela and Cass pack suitcases and talk with honesty about their families.

The juxtapositions are sometimes dramatic. When her mother Anne is telling 13-year-old Gracie about her past boyfriends, her daughter’s incredulous realisation that mum had dated ‘Uncle’ Richard is interrupted by Anne’s ringing telephone—her own mother is dead. And, Rachel Sampley’s lighting brings dramatic and moving intensity to particular moments, brightness heightening the sense of helplessness, shadows bringing some relief—as when the deceased appear through the gauzy curtain, gone but not forgotten.

There’s little ‘set’ to speak of, just a few chairs which get moved about, turned over and repositioned—perhaps a neat metaphor for what life really is—but music and image are used effectively to create context and breadth. Unfolding images from a photograph album, projected on the back curtain, flick through the years. A text-message sequence, spread over days, between Jordan and Graciela, now aged 30, stumbles through emotions—awkwardness, closeness, love, detachment—culminating in a dreadful silence which is broken by Mrs Cooper’s call. Graciela and Jordan won’t be getting lunch at Jed’s Snack Shack, after all.

Rice’s dialogue is persuasive—by turns poignant and funny, dark and light. He’s equally sharp at catching the tenor of childhood ‘logic’, petulant adolescence, and the wisdom of experience. The humour is wickedly pithy, the sadness bittersweet. There will be tears, of laughter and empathy. Bring your tissues.

As Graciela, Vivia Font is compelling from first to last, using her vocal and physical range to show how a person develops from a high-spirited child to a sulky teenager, responsible professional and worldly adult, all the while retaining an essence of ‘self’. The focus and sensitivity of her performance are impressive.

The rest of the cast assume multiple roles and skilfully convey the passing of time. The way Siphiwo Mahlentle conveys Jordan’s gaucheness and sincerity inspires great warmth, and he’s an exuberant Melaku too. Kathyrn Akin communicates Anne’s wisdom and strength; later she dons butterfly wings as an exuberant Lily, Graciela’s granddaughter. Alejandro De Mesa is a taciturn but loving Raul. As Cass, Amelia Campbell provides some stillness and calm to balance Graciela’s intensity.

If I have one quibble, it’s about the dogs. It’s not really clear why the death of Buster should traumatise Gracie so. She says she didn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye, and when her parents remind her that she did, “yesterday in the living room,” she accuses them, “you made my doggy dead.” But, her parents help her heal and she accepts the death of Bella, even as she struggles with the demise of Melaku’s pet fish.

Then, at the end, there’s another doggy story, this time from Cass, told to the waning Graciela. It’s the one moment in the play where Rice slips into a sentimentality which is emphasised by the single lightbulb, extinguished in the dying moments. Shortly before, Graciela had asked Lily to say, “dying must be so hard”, so that, in reply, her last words could be, “dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” That would have been a good place to end, in keeping with Federico García Lorca’s belief that, "those who are afraid of death will carry it on their shoulders."

Reviewer: Claire Seymour

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