“Well, we love each other. I figured, why not give it one last shot?”
So says 30-something Merryn to the similarly aged Wyatt, midway through Jennifer Lane’s “To Fall in Love.” It’s an arresting sentence, and not just because Wyatt is Merryn’s husband – even though he’s now moved out and is living in the sterile pre-furnished apartment where Lane’s play unfolds.
What’s striking about Merryn’s statement is that this couple – together since college – is thinking about calling it quits even though they clearly still love each other.
But as Lane’s title suggests, they’ll only make it as a couple if they can somehow fall in love all over again, reinventing what this word means to accommodate all that’s changed in their world and themselves. Otherwise, their love will become no more than an exercise in nostalgia – true to who they once were but inadequate to who they now are or might yet still become.
Their “one last shot” for saving what they’ll otherwise surely lose?
Asking each other the 36 questions outlined in a famous study conceived and conducted by psychologist Arthur Aron. They move from softballs like “would you like to be famous?” to more reflective questions like “what do you value most in a friendship?” and “when did you last cry in front of another person?”
The idea? To enable vulnerability and thereby foster intimacy, allowing two people meeting for the first time to fall in love. It worked: Some of Aron’s study subjects – total strangers meeting in a lab – did in fact fall in love.
Given their long history together, Merryn and Wyatt aren’t such strangers; as Wyatt pointedly says in answering one question, “I can’t . . . pretend like you haven’t heard this story, all my stories, a thousand times.”
But has he, really?
As Merryn and Wyatt each answer yet another question by sharing familiar stories, Lane also includes a stage direction noting that they both smile because their conversation “feels new, somehow.” Life’s questions haven’t changed; we spend all our years trying to figure them out. But the answers have. For those who move forward – who dare to change and grow – they always do.
As Heraclitus noted long ago, one can’t step in the same river twice; time rushes on. Will we go with the flow and see where the stream takes us? Or will we dig in our heels, refusing to open ourselves and the way we love to new possibilities? Will we insist that the story stay the same, comfortably bound within familiar covers that lull us to sleep? Or will we risk writing new chapters to which we don’t yet know the ending?
Putting aside the plot’s particulars, this is the real subject of Lane’s play.
In different ways, both Wyatt and Merryn are stuck in the past with regard to how they view their careers, the power dynamics in their relationship, and especially their shared history – with both its joys and one great tragedy. Confident that they’re in love, they’ve forgotten what it’s like to fall in love. Because they think they know the answers, they’ve forgotten the questions – and how to listen to each other’s needs.
True to her theme, Lane’s ending rightly resists definitive answers; having watched her play, you’re bound to leave the theater with questions. Some of them will involve what you’ve seen on stage. But I’d like to think that some of them will also involve asking whether you remain open to falling in love all over again, each and every day. With your partner and closest friends. With the world, in all its glory. With yourself and all you might yet be.
– Milwaukee, March 11, 2019