Arts & Culture » Performing Arts Review

That ticking sound? In Marisa Wegrzyn’s new play, Hickorydickory, it’s time running out.

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Want to know the day of your death, so you won't be caught off guard or make unnecessary dinner reservations? The Internet has the answer, as usual. Simply visit the Death Clock (deathclock.com)—the Web's "friendly reminder that life is slipping away"—and enter your date of birth, gender, estimated body mass index, and whether or not you smoke. Thanks to this highly scientific assessment, I now know that I'll die on Wednesday, May 14, 2053—which means, the site calculates, that I have roughly 1.3 billion seconds left to live.

Marisa Wegrzyn suggests that some people have another way of acquiring this information. According to her play Hickorydickory, now receiving its world premiere at Chicago Dramatists, they're born with pocket watches in their heads—"mortal clocks" that count down the time their hosts have left to live. We're told everybody has a mortal clock (a term that pops up in Wegrzyn's script with the same numbing frequency as "vagina" does in The Vagina Monologues), but they're usually nestled behind our hearts so we don't notice them. An unlucky few, however, have the device in their noggins and can hear it ticking away, which somehow lets them know exactly when they're going to die.

Dale is one of the unlucky few. At 17, she leads an ordinary North Shore existence with her gently overprotective father, Jimmy, and stepmother, Kate, who have the usual suburban parental concerns about college applications and boys. The difference is that Dale knows she's due to die in a few days.

She isn't aware of the timepiece in her cranium, though, until she asks an apprentice at Jimmy's repair shop to fix an old pocket watch, and the thing starts spurting blood. Turns out it's the extracted mortal clock of Dale's biological mom, Cari Lee. Having people fiddle with it causes Cari Lee physical pain, so she returns to the shop to see what's what.

Oddly enough, Cari Lee hasn't aged a day since she left Jimmy, shortly after giving birth to Dale. And, inasmuch as she was still in high school at the time of her pregnancy, she and her daughter are now the same age. What happened, Jimmy explains, was that he tried to add more time to Cari Lee's clock when he found out she was slated to die on the day of Dale's birth. But he broke it instead, leaving Cari Lee frozen at 17 forever.

The second of the play's three acts flashes back to the days leading up to Cari Lee's crucial moment. We meet Jimmy's parents, who, in addition to operating the repair shop Jimmy will inherit, maintain a side business extracting mortal clocks from the heads of weary souls—including Cari Lee—tormented by the constant reminder of their destiny. We also meet a younger version of stalwart Kate, who will step into the breach to raise Dale after wild-child Cari Lee takes off.

Aided considerably by Russ Tutterow's lively production, with its likable cast, exciting special effects, and Simon Lashford set suggesting a fairy tale workshop hidden beneath a mundane facade, Wegrzyn manages to make her fantastical premise engaging, funny, and even plausible. But by the end of her play's nearly three-hour running time, we know way more about the mechanics of mortal clocks than we do about the inner lives of the people they belong to.

Wegrzyn only glances at the big themes her scenario raises—matters of fate, free will, and the transitory nature of existence—without exploring them. It's interesting, for instance, that no one seriously considers breaking Dale's clock as a way of staving off death. After all, doing so would make her, like Cari Lee, immortal. We're simply told it's against the rules, and that's that. Unlike Wim Wenders in Wings of Desire or Thornton Wilder in Our Town, Wegrzyn never delves deeply enough to make the best case for a finite life span, which is that the passing seconds become precious when we know we've only got 1.3 billion of them left.

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