The buoyant youngest, Nelly, played by Kathryn Zdan (also the show’s choreographer), will die “by blunt instrument;” the daredevil long-distance-swimmer and middle sister, Jenny June (Liz Sklar), will “disappear;” the down-to-earth eldest, Gerty (Megan Smith), will succumb to consumption.
The three women announce these facts early on, quite cheerfully, and repeat them often throughout.
And in this crystalline West Coast premiere, staged by Jasson Minadakis for five multitalented actors in several roles apiece — including various musical instruments, which involves sing and dance — you’re likely to fall in love with all three, as well as with their socially awkward foundling brother, John, (a wonderfully lugubrious Patrick Kelly Jones), who prefers animals to people, and a dashing and extroverted suitor, Mortimer Mortimer (Brian Herndon).
Set in the late 1920s, but actually covering all the characters’ life spans, “Failure” takes place mostly in the sisters’ clock shop on the corner of Lumber and Love in Chicago (elegant, whimsical set by Nina Ball).
The period-perfect script recalls Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” and the performance style is similar to San Francisco’s Word for Word, in which actors share portions of narrative text and also embody inanimate objects (in this case, mostly clocks). Animals (chatty parakeets, a dying dog and a python) are puppets manipulated and voiced by the actors.
Woven throughout is a glancing sense of the passage of time (“tick-tock” go the personified clocks). Playwright Dawkins appears to have an old soul’s deep understanding of the ways that we love and the haunting inevitability, and unpredictable circumstances, of our eventual deaths.
The play is full of too many funny, lyrical and poignant moments to recount.
Among them are the lilting and repeated strains of “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and other old chestnuts, plus some original songs by music director Chris Houston that fit in seamlessly, all sung in sweet, close harmony. Other highlights include a hilarious strip-tease by Mortimer, a waltzing Jones as a tinny-voiced gramophone and Jenny June practicing her swim strokes by careening around the shop on a desk chair.
The lives, the loves and the ultimate deaths of this quirky family coalesce into a beautiful story that Minadakis, directing his stellar cast with a light and sensitive touch, never sentimentalizes.
Failure: A Love Story
Where: Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes June 29
Tickets: $42 to $58
Contact: (415) 388-5208, www.marintheatre.org