Friendship and family are tested by illness and hard choices in La Jolla Playhouse’s affecting ‘The Luckiest’


Two songs by R.E.M. bookend the storytelling of “The Luckiest,” and a pair of lyrics from those tunes limn beautifully the jagged emotional tone of this affecting La Jolla Playhouse world premiere from Melissa Ross.

One of the lines is sung by a young man named Peter to his best friend, Lissette, and it fits the gist of the scene in ways that will become more clear later: “It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”

The other shows up in a musical coda after the play’s final bows: “It’s all the same to share the pain with me.”

These two close companions, Lissette (Aleque Reid) and Peter (Reggie D. White), have shared plenty of pain in the tumultuous decade or so they’ve known each other, compressed into 90 minutes of time-hopping, sometimes heart-skipping theater under Jaime Castañeda’s expert direction.

In that time, they’ve also shared a lot of love. Their bond is so strong, in fact, that “The Luckiest” proves capable of provoking a surprising feeling: a sense of envy for the depth of this pair’s friendship.

Surprising because of what threatens to come between them: A medical diagnosis that could hardly be more dire, and whose fallout forms the core of the story.

To say more might risk giving away too much, and yet the gravity of what Lissette faces is made clear in the very first scene, when she appears onstage in a motorized wheelchair — communicating mostly in gestures and facial expressions as Peter rambles on comically, poignantly, about a party he’s planning for her, complete with every snack Trader Joe’s ever made.

It’s the end of their world as he knows it, and he feels ... “conflicted” would not begin to describe it.

From there, “The Luckiest” leaps backward in time to the scene of their first meeting, at a party where Peter is being ignored by the guy who brought him as a date.

He and Lissette find they share the same kind of gallows humor — musing over weird (and weirdly prophetic) theoreticals about whether they’d want to continue living if they were comatose characters on “Falcon Crest.”

In one of its nonlinear shifts, the play also introduces Cheryl (Deirdre Lovejoy), Lissette’s prickly Boston mom, who’s first seen fretting over her role in the party Peter is planning, and later (but earlier, in the story’s chronology) struggles to let her daughter make her own decisions about how to deal with the diagnosis and what it means for the future.

While the character of Cheryl can feel like a bit of third wheel given the intensity of Peter and Lissette’s friendship, all three actors bring a sense of often raw authenticity to their roles.

Reid’s well-tuned physicality defines both Lissette’s exuberant embrace of life before illness strikes — her demonstration of her cocktail-mixing chops for Peter is a funny highlight — and the ways her condition limits her self-expression but doesn’t extinguish her spirit.

White captures the deeply sympathetic Peter’s big heart and almost compulsive candor; and Lovejoy (though she lays the accent on a bit thick) finds a good blend of steeliness and fragility in the world-weary Cheryl.

A story like this one is hard to get right without going too sentimental: Ross accomplishes that winningly, although the play does trade in the occasional cliche (as in the symbolism of a ladybug, and Lissette’s motto, “Live hard, love harder.”)

Tim Mackabee’s spare set serves the play adequately; such an intimate and personal piece, though, might land better on a thrust stage instead of the strangely elongated, aloof-feeling setup for the show in the Playhouse’s Potiker space.

And in the category of things that probably only bother a theater critic: Lissette’s sudden shift to direct address for a late-in-the-show scene is puzzling. The monologue, though, is a powerful one, delivered by Reid in a bravura turn.

Likewise for a touching scene that has Peter gently lifting Lissette from her wheelchair to help her into a fancy outfit, as he sings, “Gonna dress you up in my love.”

Suffice to say that Ross’ elegy for a friendship inspired plenty of tears among opening-night playgoers.

At the end of “The Luckiest,” will you feel fine? Maybe not.

But you will feel.

“The Luckiest”

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through July 28.

Where: La Jolla Playhouse’s Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, Playhouse/UC San Diego Theatre District, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla.

Tickets: $39 and up ($25 and up for military; other discounts may be available)

Phone: (858) 550-1010