Stunning ‘To Fall in Love’ at Theatre Lab Embraces Intimacy

What does it really mean to fall in love? If you’re anything like the main and only two characters of Jennifer Lane’s To Fall In Love, Theatre Lab’s long-delayed post-pandemic offering, it means, or at least meant, being able to fill the “black hole” of your heart’s neediness with affection, being passionate enough to write hundreds of poems for someone, or feeling so strongly about someone that you can’t imagine being able to so much as survive without them. 

But having to learn to live without their other half is exactly the threat that the play’s technically-still-married but separated-and-approaching divorce couple must face. Wyatt, the more invested party, has invited his wife Merryn over for a last-ditch experimental effort to save their relationship in the wake of a tragedy that tore the seeming soulmates apart. 

He’s dug up 36 questions famously “proven,” by a study popularized by the New York Times, albeit one with a questionably small sample size, to be able to prompt two people to fall in love if they simply share their honest answers with one another.

Matt Stabile and Niki Fridh. Photo by Julia Rose Photography

While it’s a device that could have easily felt forced, both the script and the actors seemed to treat the whole matter with the awkwardness that such an artificial set-up would warrant. Niki Fridh, showing remarkable range after recently excelling at a series of cartoonish character roles in The Impracticality of Modern Day Mastodons, embodies Merryn as a self-conscious and soft-hearted woman laden with the weight of unthinkable grief. 

Her co-star (and real life husband) Matt Stabile is maybe less obviously transfigured from his baseline persona but plenty effective as the sharper and thornier literature professor Wyatt, whose desperation is the engine the play is fueled by.

Director Louis Tyrrell shapes both performances into a well-paced push-and-pull as the questions serve to unearth the swirling, devastating intensity of the struggling couple. Moments when their deep familiarity allows them to find comfort in one another intertwine with a series of shattering revelations that gradually explain the nature of the horrific event that tore them apart and then pry open each character’s ensuing wounds. 

Just when it seems that the couple can perhaps relearn how to function as a “we,” falling into natural back-and-forths and even indulging in an intense physical reconnection, another layer is peeled away and the more skittish Merryn must distance herself from Wyatt once more. In fact, getting absorbed into the moment with the man who was once her everything is the very thing she is now terrified of, for reasons as understandable as they are heart-rending. 

Matt Stabile and Niki Fridh. Photo by Julia Rose Photography

In the surprisingly effective script, quips about booze, baby pandas, or Wyatt’s under-furnished apartment make for welcome breaks from the play’s more central and sorrowful elements. A few speeches and exchanges came across as a little too measured and poetic to be realistic, which stood out in a play that was so naturalistic otherwise, but far more of the dialogue evocatively captures the unmistakable sensibility of a couple whose intimacy is almost a world unto itself.

As tension builds and grievances are articulated, the moments of love that do emerge begin to feel more and more like the last glowing embers of a fire that may have been extinguished long ago. Just when it seems as if the flames have ceased, though, a powerful but ambiguous conclusion seems to offer at least the chance at a more lasting redemption. You have until this December 12 to see if you can fall in love with this production for yourself.

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