David Cale’s solo show WE’RE ONLY ALIVE FOR A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME, now in its world premiere at Goodman Theatre, tells a story of the incredible resilience of the human spirit. Though Cale is no stranger to the Goodman stage (this is his seventh work to be produced here), he’s not made an appearance since 2005 and this “musical memoir” (so called in the program) is among his most personal works. Over the course of 90 minutes, Cale’s solo play with songs allows him to recount his childhood experiences in the industrial British town of Luton.
In unfolding the events of his youth, Cale presents a study in contrasts. Cale’s parents had a tragic and fraught relationship; his father was an alcoholic, and he conveys that his mother was rather helpless in the face of his father and grandfather’s terrible, manipulative behaviors. Cale’s shocking reveal partway through also makes WE’RE ONLY ALIVE darker than one might initially expect.
Yet despite the fact that many elements of Cale’s childhood were sad, the way in which he speaks about these events is tinged with gentleness and a delicate, sing-song pace. Cale moves between moments in which he portrays both himself and his immediate family members all at distinct cadences, flitting from beat to beat. He opens the show surrounded by a numbers of bird cages suspended from the ceiling (part of Kevin Depinet’s open concept, free-floating set design) and has an almost birdlike presence himself. As Cale explains, he found solace from his family troubles in the bird and animal hospital he built in his family’s garden. Cale beautifully conveys his relationship to nature through the show, and his spritely presence makes it easy for us to imagine him surrounded by his childhood pets.
With direction from the Goodman’s Artistic Director Robert Falls, WE’RE ONLY ALIVE also combines monologues and songs to unfold Cale’s story. Cale wrote the lyrics and composed the music alongside Matthew Dean Marsh, who also arranged the score for five musicians (he’s on the piano). The music itself has a folksy vibe that evokes Cale’s hometown and mirrors the gently contemplative tone of the show. And while Cale has bounds of charm and persona onstage, he’s not quite up to the task vocally or lyrically. Cale’s monologues are rich and filled with lovely language, but his song lyrics are rather simplistic. Still, the music adds a homey, rustic vibe to the show that fits Cale’s story.
Above all, Cale gives us a sense of his unrelenting optimism in WE’RE ONLY ALIVE. It never feels inauthentic, though. Rather by relaying the story of his family life and the ways in which he found escape through nature and through art, we have a strong sense of the determination and resilience that led Cale to where he is now.
WE’RE ONLY ALIVE FOR A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME plays Goodman Theatre’s Albert Theatre, 170 North Dearborn, through October 21. Tickets are $25-$70. Visit GoodmanTheatre.org/Alive or call 312.443.3800 for tickets.