In 1938 Thornton Wilder's famous play about dead people, Our Town, hit the stage. It quickly became one of America's best-loved classics, so accessible that it has been fondly performed by high school after high school for over half a century — despite the dead people, the minimalism, and the chilly, existential universe that Wilder implied was orbiting around his charming and smug New England setting.
Jeff Daniels's Across the Way has some of that same chemistry. As with Our Town, its minimalist surrealism and jumpy chronology make it sound like art house fare, best served to hypersophisticated audiences who have outgrown reality programming. Instead, it becomes apparent very soon into the production that it's going to be astonishingly beautiful, poignant, and completely comprehensible, in a right-side-of-the-brain sort of way.
Across the Way is the surreal dream that takes place in the mind of a dying woman, Ellie (played by Michelle Mountain). People from her past — now mostly dead — come alive to enact scenes that did happen, didn't happen, couldn't have happened, sort of happened, fading in and out, as dreams do. Daniels's characters glow with joy, wit, and tenderness, delighting in finding meaning and connections in Ellie's mind that their linear, chronological lives couldn't reveal to any of them in life.
You'd never know this was a rookie script. In its thirteenth season now, the Purple Rose has honed and matured its talent and sense of purpose to a point where it can effortlessly carry a difficult new script such as this one from playwright to director to cast. Daniels is, of course, the benefactor of the Purple Rose and has written some other plays as well, but Across the Way is not something you'd expect to find in the trajectory of the career that produced Escanaba in da Moonlight. As it happens, I strongly disliked Escanaba, but whether you hated or loved it, this is an almost unbelievable departure, revealing an awesome versatility.
You're not likely to see this play on the high school circuit — though it doesn't actually feature nudity, it is richly sexual — but it may indeed have the legs of Our Town.
Across the Way continues its run at the Purple Rose every Wednesday through Sunday into December.