Review: La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘Hundred Days’ a compelling, cathartic musical saga of coming to terms with life’s limits


If you think about it — that is, if you care to think about it, because it’s not the happiest thought — every relationship is kind of one long breakup.

It’s pretty much assured that if matters of love or money or clashing thread-count preferences don’t quash a romantic bond, the limits of human longevity (spoiler alert!) eventually will.

Abigail and Shaun Bengson did care to think about that — obsess about it, in fact — from essentially the very second they met.

The irony is that their mutual fear of losing each other almost became the reason they lost each other.

The beauty is not only that it did not happen, but that their terror was channeled and transformed into an arresting theater piece that bears exquisite witness both to the healing power of art and to the catharsis that can come with a shared live experience.

“We say yes to death doing us part. What else can we do?,” Abigail sings, riffing playfully on the familiar, formal language of marriage vows in “Hundred Days,” the deeply personal and often raw musical memoir that just opened at La Jolla Playhouse.

The piece, which she and her husband, Shaun, wrote with the playwright Sarah Gancher, mixes confessional and often poetic storytelling with stylistically diverse folk-rock songs composed by The Bengsons (as Abigail and Shaun collectively are known).

Performing with four other musicians — Ashley Baier (drums/percussion), El Beh (cello), Barrie Lobo McLain (vocals/accordion/guitar) and Reggie D. White (vocals/keyboards) — the pair document the saga of their own intense three-week courtship in this compact, 70-minute show, directed by the accomplished University of California San Diego grad Anne Kauffman.

The Bengsons’ meeting turned into a whirlwind romance of a very different kind: Images of wind and storms punctuate Abigail’s recollections of a family tragedy that occurred when she was a teen-ager, one that profoundly affected her thoughts on fate and mortality and helped feed into her unease about the budding relationship with Shaun.

She also relates a vision she once had in her youth of receiving news from a doctor that the man she loved had only 100 days to live — a premonition that gives the play its title, as well as its ultimate theme of making the most of whatever time one might have left.

Shaun, meanwhile, is having his own misgivings over his own shyness and his spiritual struggles. And then, not long after the pair meet — at the “first rehearsal of a massive anti-folk folk-punk old-timey neo soul band” — Shaun winds up in the hospital, and Abigail is drawn into an emotional maelstrom, reliving the fears from her teen years and becoming convinced her premonitions will prove true.

That leads to an utterly stunning moment: Abigail’s performance of the haunting “Three Legged Dog” — a primal scream of a song, with otherworldly vocals and the vivid image of a dog chewing off its own foot to flee a trap of agonized memories.

It’s one of the most emotionally stark performances you’re likely to see on a theater stage — all the more so for its contrast with the gentle, self-deprecating humor that threads through much of the piece.

It’s also visually powerful, as columns of sand cascade onto Kris Stone and Andrew Hungerford’s spare set (lit by Hungerford for maximum drama) around Abigail, who describes herself as marooned on a vast salt flat representing past, present and future. (The moment is a little reminiscent of a scene from the underappreciated movie “Interstellar,” in which an astronaut travels through a physical manifestation of time to reach his daughter, and conveys messages to her in falling dust.)

Movement director Sonya Tayeh adds an almost ritualistic physicality to this and other scenes, and The Bengsons (both of whom play guitar) and their band play and sing with plenty of brio. (One small reservation: Some band banter early in the show can come off as a bit too scripted.)

The show’s title song is a stirring and percussive anthem of affirmation. But the final number, “Bells” — the first song The Bengsons wrote together, more than a decade ago — aptly captures the spirit of hard-won endurance that animates “Hundred Days.”

Its simple, wistful-yet-hopeful sentiment: “I’ll keep walking.”

‘Hundred Days’

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 Oct. 21.

Where: La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Forum, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, Playhouse/UC San Diego Theatre District.

Tickets: $25-$55

Phone: (858) 550-1010


Twitter: @jimhebert