NEW YORK—The need for freedom and sanctuary quickly becomes a running theme in David Cale’s extremely personal one-person show “We’re Only Alive for A Short Amount of Time,” now at The Public Theater. Even before the show begins, this point is made clear as the audience enters the theater and is greeted by the sight of eight empty birdcages hanging from the ceiling, each with an open door.
A co-production with the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, “We’re Only Alive” recounts Cale’s painful and tumultuous childhood in the industrial town of Luton, located 30 miles from London, and, “at the time, had the highest crime rate in England.”
Combining music and memories, Cale assumes the persona of not only his younger self, but also that of various family members, neighbors, and others he interacted with for one reason or another.
Particularly effective is Cale’s portrayal of his paternal grandfather. A somewhat imposing and feared businessman, with a rather shady way of handling things, he was known to all simply as “Mr. E.”
Most important among these portrayals, though, are his alcoholic father and his mother who had the unfortunate habit of settling for far less than she could have—both in her professional and personal life.
Like any child growing up in a situation in which his parents’ screaming at one another is an everyday occurrence, Cale looked for some kind of escape. He found it in taking care of animals—in particular, birds.
Cale first set up a bird and animal hospital in a shed near his home and later got his parents to buy him an aviary. Eventually, he had so many birds that he had to get up hours before school in order to take care of them all.
The aviary became a safe haven not only for Cale, but for the birds as well. Cale recalls how he accidentally left a window to the aviary open one night, and by morning, most of the birds had flown away. Yet by that evening, all had come back of their own accord.
While Cale paints a bleak portrait, it’s also sprinkled with hope and filled with a strong imagery that allows the tale to come alive. Especially powerful are the occasional moments of wonder he experiences. One time, a girl he knew invited him to her home for dinner, and he marveled at seeing how much her parents loved one another. He realized, perhaps the first time in his life, that his own childhood experiences might not be the norm.
Yet Cale takes pains to present situations from his parents’ point of view. Both had their own emotional baggage to deal with. His father for example, was the result of an unplanned pregnancy and notes how “it doesn’t start you off with an advantage if you’re told you’re a mistake.”
But, as the show makes clear, each of us is ultimately responsible for our own decisions, no matter the reasons for doing so, or how badly we may have been hurt in life. This applies not only to Cale’s parents, but also to Cale himself; he had to choose between going his own way or assuming responsibilities others felt it was his duty to take on.
Cale clearly puts his heart and soul into his performance, showing himself to be a master storyteller and someone who has refused to let the past define him.
He’s given strong support by six on-stage musicians who lend an extra level of depth to the piece when necessary but never call more attention to themselves than needed.
Robert Falls, artistic director of the Goodman Theatre, does a perfect job with the show’s direction. He works with Cale to take the story where it needs to go, but never allows any part of it to feel overlong or unnecessary.
The show’s title, “We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time,” has a double meaning. The first is that our life on Earth is finite and that every moment you have and every decision you make matters going forward. The second has to do with the ever shorter time we have in our lives. At first, the possibilities for the future are endless. But once you set yourself on a specific path, certain circumstances in your life become set in stone and it may be impossible to change them ever again.
‘We’re Only Alive for a Short Amount of Time’
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette St. New York
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or PublicTheater.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 25 minutes (no intermission)
Closes: July 14
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org