By Alex Miller
A multitude of musical instruments: bongos, wind chimes, and a kazoo played by Victor Y. See Yuen. He is a bespectacled man with long, flowing salt‑and‑pepper hair and beard, dressed smartly in a platinum blazer, black V‑neck, and the coolness of a professor who teaches Jazz Theory. He accompanies the vibrant and lithe Susan Jacobson, our star and a miracle of energy and flash. She moves across the stage with the ease and grace of a swan slicing through water. Her ponytail waves at the crowd, twirling as she flirts with members of the audience with only her eyes and a few gentle caresses of their cheeks. Mr. Yuen plays a lively number and the entire first act feels quite tribal, elemental. But wait until you hear Ms. Jacobson’s story.
Her childhood was filled with art and a love of nature. She describes rowing with her dad out on the pond, picking up driftwood. The bond between them is spellbinding, and always apparent. She travels to see him, buckles in her one‑year‑old with haste and care, and drives from New York to Maryland “in record time.” The impending tragedy amidst beauty is a running theme.
We learn of the cancer that will soon take the once moose‑sized man. His brittle body becomes a husk that she is afraid she might break if she isn’t careful. But there used to be more than this.
She recollects her early experiences with his paintings, the warm colors, the pictures that seemed to speak to a person if only they would listen. In a slightly humorous scene, her father shows her an close‑up slide of a dumpster, a photo he took in a flurry of inspiration. Seven‑year‑old Susan can only crinkle her nose, like, “What even *is* art?” There is a beauty in the naiveté we all feel before we learn to truly embrace and appreciate art.
He eventually became a therapist. But as Ms. Jacobson informs us, “Dad stopped working as an artist, but he never stopped being an artist.” For which we can all be glad. Da Vinci, Pollock, Warhol. Art should never die… even in death.
She was pained to watch her father take in slow breaths, and remembered how bothered he was that it took her so long to have kids. She had struggled with infertility. Her father wanted to be able to toss his grandchildren up in the air and catch them. Like a grandpa is apt to do. And like he would never do.
Shortly before his death, she resorted to magical thinking. If only she could beat that light while driving along Broadway, his cancer would disappear. These are impossible things we all know can’t happen, but we still hope that they might.
On his deathbed, as her father lay in a near‑comatose state, his chest rising and falling ever‑so slightly, she told him that he could go. They had sent his patients letters telling them that he would be leaving his practice after decades. He told her that she could talk to him anytime she wanted… a truth and a lie that only humans can believe. She told him she would.
After his last breath, Ms. Jacobson checked in on her own daughter, watching the girl’s chest gently rise and fall. The comparison must be made: breathing for the sick and dying isn’t much different from breathing for the young and living.
“Collecting Driftwood” is a love letter to a larger‑than‑life man who was nonetheless incredibly down to earth. Ms. Jacobson is phenomenal. Her visual storytelling is as impressive as her verbal storytelling. One cannot leave this play without hoping for just a little more time with loved ones. We will all drift apart like driftwood… into that open pond of the afterlife. What’s important is what we do while we’re here. “Collecting Driftwood” reminds us to enjoy even the simplest moments.
Written and Performed by Susan Jacobson
Music by Victor See Yuen
Directed by David Deblinger
Photo credit: courtesy of the production
2019 United Solo Theatre Festival
410 West 42nd Street
New York City
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ALEX MILLER, a Chicago native, has been a professional writer and editor for 6 years. He joined the Navy in 2004, and served for four years in such places as Haiti, Iraq, and Somalia. He has a degree in Public Engagement from The New School, and has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Forbes, The New York Daily News, and QZ, among others. He lives in Harlem.