Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Grief: A One Man ShitShow

 Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The hard truth is that every one of us will someday be ripped apart by the unspeakable pain of losing someone near and dear. That is, if it hasn’t to you happened already. Be it by murder, disease, accident, overdose, suicide, or natural causes; eventually, “everybody dies.” Something writer/director Colin Campbell states at the beginning of his very personal work, "Grief: A One Man ShitShow, now at Theatre Row.

Mr. Campbell is quite intimately acquainted with the title subject. He has been since the time, nearly four years ago, when he, his wife Gail, their 14 year-old son Hart and 17 year-old daughter Ruby were in a car when it was struck by a drunk driver. Campbell, who was driving, survived. So did his wife. Their children did not.

While that tragedy serves as the catalyst for the show, the work itself is two-pronged. One tranche explores how Colin has learned to move through his pain since then, while the second looks at the issue of grief itself and the white elephant in the room that comes with it.

                Colin Campbell in "Grief: A One Man ShitShow".  Photo by Rebecca Asher.

Said elephant is actually a question. Specifically, what do you say when interacting with someone who is grieving? To the non-griever, it can feel as if trying to step through a virtual minefield. Where anything from "how are you feeling" to "nice day, isn't it" can be the wrong thing to say. Even such well-intentioned attempts as "what can I do to help" or "there are no words" – that last expression a particular anathema to Colin – can fall short. Coupled with this seeming inability to connect are the endless gifts (i.e., books on grieving, links to emotional support groups, or bottles of alcohol) from non-grievers that often do little to ease the pain. Colin, in a moment of particularly biting sarcasm, also points out how a gift of liquor is not really a good idea when the recipient's children have been murdered by a drunk driver.

As for Colin, he wants to talk about what happened. For by him continuing to relive the tragedy and acknowledge the resulting pain, it proves to him he is still alive inside - rather than drinking or drugging himself into oblivion. More importantly, his speaking about Hart and Ruby and the stories he tells about them allows his children to become more than just images in an onstage photograph. Plus, it reaffirms the fact that they existed. And still do for him.

                Colin Campbell in "Grief: A One Man ShitShow".  Photo by Rebecca Asher.

Colin also examines the many levels of grief  and how different grief experiences result in different reactions from others. For example, the response to one who has lost a family member to a drunk driver is different than if that person had died due to a drug overdose, or by suicide. Also explored is the fact that, despite any initial thoughts of how no one can understand the pain you’re going through, one eventually realizes there are a great many sufferers out there who have it far worse than you.

Other areas touched on include the myth that close to 90% of marriages fall apart after the sudden death of a child, as well as the "what if"/if only" scenario. In the latter case, Campbell describes how he imagines what he could have done differently to prevent the deadly crash. These mental gymnastics serve as another way for him to keep his children alive. A version of “survivor's guilt,” it also goes hand in hand with Colin wondering when and how he and his wife should resume their everyday lives in the wake of what happened. This process of attempting to do so, or even to broach the subject, serves as another grief white elephant and examines the importance of communicating one’s feelings to their significant other.

Colin pulls no punches in telling this story. The piece, a literal showcase for his rage, pain, and the love he feels for his children. Sprinkled with more than a bit of humor, there is no doubt the process of writing and performing the show is for him cathartic. Yet while Colin may have found a way to come to terms with his grief, his effort to translate all this to the audience at times falls short. While one can certainly connect with how he feels, the show sometimes has the air of a well-researched case study rather than a more intimate tragedy.

                         Colin Campbell in "Grief: A One Man ShitShow".  Photo by Rebecca Asher.

In addition, his suggestion of addressing the white elephant in the room when it comes to talking about grief doesn't really work, as each person's experience with the subject is different. As is each person's attempt at a solution. Even if every single person in the audience tried to have a one-on-one conversation with Campbell on the matter, each one would be different due to the multiple parties involved.

In the end, one learns about Colin Campbell’s story rather than actually feeling they’ve experienced it. As for all those who have been lucky enough not to experience any such sort of grief as this, they are profoundly grateful.

Grief: A One Man ShitShow

Written and performed by Colin Campbell

Directed by Michael Schlitt

Stage Manager: Sloane Fischer

Production Manager: Eric Nightengale

General Mangers: Form Theatricals: Antony Francavilla & Reed Ridgley

Song: Heroes

Music by David Bowie

Lyrics by David Bowie and Brian Eno

Translation and Additional Lyrics by Rubén Martínez

Performed by Rubén Martínez, Juan Perez and Rosalie Rodriguez


Presented at Theatre Row, Studio Theatre

410 West 42nd Street

Tickets & Information:

Running time: 80 minutes, no intermission

Closes: April 23, 2023

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