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An atypical ‘he said, she said’

‘Last Five Years’ approaches crumbling relationship from both sides, but with a twist

Aubrey Shimek-Davis as Cathy Hiatt and Robby French as Jamie Wellerstein in the Modern Theater Coeur d’Alene’s production of “The Last Five Years.”
Aubrey Shimek-Davis as Cathy Hiatt and Robby French as Jamie Wellerstein in the Modern Theater Coeur d’Alene’s production of “The Last Five Years.”

Every relationship is a gamble. Even with the best of intentions, one can devolve into resentment and disappointment, and that erosion is very rarely a one-way street. Jason Robert Brown’s semi-autobiographical musical “The Last Five Years” examines a romantic dissolution in an unusual way: It takes two plot strands and lets them play out concurrently but in opposite directions, so that the story ends where it began.

Premiering at the Modern Theater Coeur d’Alene tonight, “The Last Five Years” chronicles the doomed relationship of a writer named Jamie (Robby French) and an actress named Cathy (Aubrey Shimek-Davis), alternating between each of the characters’ perspectives at different points in their lives: Jamie’s version of events is told in chronological order, while Cathy’s is told the other way around, beginning as she and Jamie have broken up.

“It’s brilliantly written,” director George Green said of the show. “It’s an interesting twist to watch this production and see both of these storylines play out, meet in the middle and then reverse.”

Jamie and Cathy are the only two characters in the show, though they only interact in one scene – it’s during their wedding, which occurs as their two respective stories converge in the middle. It’s a spare, minimalistic approach, and it makes the story more startling in its intimacy.

Brown based “The Last Five Years” on his own crumbling marriage (his ex-wife even threatened legal action because the show so closely followed their relationship), and Green says that he and his actors talked about their own marriages as a way of connecting with the material.

“I think a lot of this was a purging of emotional conflicts when he wrote it,” Green said. “Being just a two-person musical, we were able to spend a lot of time in these open-ended discussions about (our own marriages), and we found that each of us in that room had a significantly different dynamic. None of our marriages are the same, so long gone are the days of ‘Leave It to Beaver.’ ”

But the show isn’t meant to be a sweeping statement about the modern state of relationships; this is a specific story about specific characters, a portrait of two people growing and changing and slowly breaking apart over the course of five years.

“Some of the topics that are challenged in this relationship are each individual’s drive for success, their ability and talent to attain those things, lack of compromise, lack of passion,” Green said. “You’ll see those things throughout the show, and yet there are moments of effort by both. They made efforts, they tried; it just didn’t work.”

Green says the sincerity of the performances by French and Shimek-Davis elevates “The Last Five Years” beyond a mere stylistic exercise, and he hopes audiences leave the theater with a lot to chew on.

“Both of (the characters) contribute to the downfall of the relationship,” he said. “I want people to walk out talking about how they may relate to some of those flaws as human beings in relationships, those red flags that they’ve seen and learned from.”

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