Julian López-Morillas has his Zoom camera off, but his voice is clear and strong.
“Shakespeare wrote 37 plays that we know of and I’ve been in all of them,” he says, testifying to his decades of theater experience. Now 75 years old, this time, López-Morillas has been cast in a contemporary story instead.
Grand Horizons opens at the San Jose Stage Company Wednesday. The Tony-nominated comedy by playwright Bess Wohl picks up when two characters decide, after 50 years of marriage, to get a divorce. This decision leaves their two sons confused and unsettled.
“As the play gets underway, you come to understand that the parents are, in many ways, completely at peace with divorcing after 50 years. But it freaks the children out. They are the ones who are desperately spinning, trying to put everything back where it was. Of course, the parents don’t really want to put it back where it was,” López-Morillas says.
López-Morillas plays Bill, the husband, who lives with his wife Nancy in an independent living community. Just across the way, an assisted living facility looms. For Bill, assisted living signifies the beginning of the end.
“Over the last couple of years, my mind has been dwelling on mortality quite a bit,” López-Morillas says. “And what I realized about Bill is that he is really being haunted by his mortality.”
The stakes of mortality are one unexpected source of comedy in the play. López-Morillas describes a moment when Bill and Nancy “play the game of let’s count to three and then blurt out the thing that you most want. They go, 1-2-3 and she says, ‘A cat’ and he says, ‘Death with dignity.’”
It’s a moment that finds humor from a very real place.
“I said in the first rehearsal: there is no need to reach for laughs in this production,” López-Morillas says. “It’s in the writing. It’s in the situations. It definitely reads as a comedy, but the comedy comes out of pain, really. It comes out of the pain of the situation that, after 50 years of marriage, these two characters are striking out into they know not what. They have various dissatisfactions that they’ve papered over for many years and they are starting to come to the surface.”
It is his experience with Shakespeare that gives López-Morillas such confidence in the script. When the writing is good, as it is in Grand Horizons, he says, “Everything you need is in the text. I don’t need to do research. I don’t need to visit old persons’ homes.”
In 2020, Bess Wohl told W Magazine that her experience as an actor informed Grand Horizons. López-Morillas can see this influence.
“It certainly has an actor’s sensibility in that the dialogue is very sharp. She’s one of these modern playwrights who is writing now where your dialogue doesn’t come as a paragraph, but as a series of lines, sometimes sentences, sometimes fragments. I like that kind of writing. It takes you closest to what the playwright is intending in terms of rhythm and breathing, and that helps the orderliness of your thought process.”
As for the playwright’s thematic intentions, the tragic elements in Grand Horizons keep it from being a straight comedy.
“Here is a basic definition that has come to accrue about comedy vs. tragedy: tragedy is about the inevitability of death. Comedy is about how we thwart the inevitability of death. And because we all know we are going to die, there is only one way you can thwart the inevitability of death and that’s to have children. So, what comedy is about, traditionally, and this would be true of every Shakespeare comedy, is young people getting together. It is about people falling in love and getting married. If you look at any final tableau of a Shakespeare comedy, and there are two or four or six or even eight people who have just committed to a life together.”
López-Morillas is careful to not spoil the play’s ending. Will Bill and Nancy reconcile and give us the comic ending of (re)committing to a life together? If only death is certain, this question of commitment in the late quarter of life remains.
“There are no guarantees.”
Opens Wed, 7:30pm, $34+
The Stage, San Jose