At the beginning of The Last Five Years, Cathy (Kailey Rhodes) sings, “Jamie is over and Jamie is gone.” If you’re wondering who Jamie is and why he’s over and gone, fear not—the play will answer those questions. But that doesn’t matter so much as the cloud of wounded yearning that surrounds Cathy as she faces the audience while wearing a pair of jeans with a hole in the knee.
Cathy is in romantic purgatory, but a character’s hell can be an audience’s heaven. By filming two-person plays with cinematic flair, Tigard’s Broadway Rose Theatre has proved its mastery of sublime minimalism. As its lovely 2020 staging of Daddy Long Legs confirmed, the company’s productions are the perfect way to get lost in the hopes and hurts of two intertwined souls.
The Last Five Years is a chronologically scrambled autopsy of the marriage between Jamie (Jeff Rosick), a writer, and Cathy, an actress. Writer-composer Jason Robert Brown seizes fragments of their stories—including Cathy’s crumbling career and Jamie’s infidelity—and arranges them into counterintuitive patterns, leaping from end to beginning to middle to who the hell knows where.
The more Brown distorts the timeline of Cathy and Jamie’s relationship, the clearer the toxicity of their connection becomes. Jamie’s inattentiveness during a trip to Ohio is perplexing (“You could stay with your wife on her fucking birthday,” Cathy fumes), but it’s downright infuriating when you realize that Cathy took a gig in Ohio because Jamie encouraged her to pursue acting more aggressively. He pushes her away, then punishes her for it.
Jamie insists that Cathy is jealous of his success as a writer (“I will not lose because you can’t win,” he whines), but their marriage actually collapses because he’s a cheating asshole. Rosick recognizes that and fearlessly embraces his character’s callousness, especially during the ironically titled song “A Miracle Would Happen/When You Come Home to Me,” which is largely a self-pitying lament about all the women that marriage has denied Jamie.
The Last Five Years rarely lets Cathy and Jamie interact—they mostly sing about each other, not to each other—but there’s a dark poetry to the distance between them. When Jamie sings his ingratiating “Schmuel Song,” lighting designer Carl Faber cloaks Rhodes in shadow, one of several grimly elegant metaphors that suggest Cathy is getting lost in the specter of Jamie’s ego.
Faber’s evocative work is enhanced by scenic artists Liz Carlson and Jo Farley, who infuse the production with a visual grandeur that matches its emotional scope. Cathy and Jamie love and lose each other before a backdrop featuring a mess of skyscrapers, which seem to sprout from the intensity of the couple’s feelings. Their affection for each other may be misguided, but to them, it is as vast and complicated as an entire city. That’s why they cling to it for so long.
Jamie is at once awful and awfully human, but the same can’t be said of Cathy. By refusing to give her anything resembling a flaw, Brown dehumanizes her. While Rhodes is riveting—her explosively emotional performance of the heartbreaking ballad “Still Hurting” makes you want to leap through the screen and comfort Cathy—she soars in spite of Brown’s writing, not because of it.
It’s worth nothing that Brown was sued by his ex-wife, Theresa O’Neill, who claimed that The Last Five Years violated the terms of their divorce agreement. Although the suit was settled before the play’s 2002 New York premiere—Brown altered the story to reduce the similarities between O’Neill and Cathy—it’s hard not to wonder if his one-sided storytelling is the work of a man who never took the trouble to understand his former spouse as thoroughly as he understands himself.
While Brown’s blinkered characterization of Cathy is a distraction, it doesn’t eclipse Broadway Rose’s majestic command of virtual theater. The company’s founders, Sharon Maroney, who directed The Last Five Years, and her husband, Dan Murphy, may eventually go back to creating colossal productions of expansive musicals like Into the Woods, but let’s hope they will carry a piece of Cathy and Jamie’s sad but unshakable story with them. I know I will.
SEE IT: The Last Five Years streams at broadwayrose.org/last-five-years through May 16. A 48-hour rental is $25 per household, and $5 tickets are available through the Arts for All program.