William Finn's "Elegies: A Song Cycle" begins and ends in darkness, as do we all. In between, though, Finn fills the stage with a glorious flock of magnificently individual characters, each one brimming with vitality and light. These are departed friends, acquaintances, loved ones, and Finn celebrates their lives even as he mourns their deaths. So should we all.
What Finn accomplishes in "Elegies," now receiving its New England premiere in a perfectly simple production by the SpeakEasy Stage Company, is nothing short of miraculous. Out of the deepest sense of fragility and loss, he crafts a cycle of 19 songs that embrace life, laughter, and hope in all their evanescent beauty. And he does it without ever succumbing to mawkishness or sentimentality; this is not sugar syrup, but the finest champagne.
As with champagne, it's complexity that gives Finn's work its intoxicating flavor and delicate strength. His melodies are unfailingly lovely, but they're never merely pretty; they go off in unlikely directions and persuade us to go along. His lyrics, too, take surprising twists and dives, sometimes offering up the expected rhyme and sometimes dodging it, so that even the expected ones feel fresh when they come. Finn also knows when to put words aside and let the music speak directly to our hearts.
Paul Daigneault directs the SpeakEasy production with effortless grace, aided by set designer Caleb Wertenbaker's skillful use of mere chairs to evoke a whole scene, each with its own distinctive character, and by Amanda Mujica's unobtrusive costumes. Backed by Paul S. Katz's lively and deeply felt piano playing, the songs flow naturally into one another, as if we're hearing old friends trade stories about the ones who are gone. Michael J. Eddy's lighting design enhances the transitions, jazzing things up with a theatrical red backdrop for "Joe Papp" or fading to darkness after the heartbreaking "Anytime (I Am There)," leaving only a heavenly gleam on the singer's hair.
The singer in that instance is Kerry Dowling, and she brings out every shade of sorrow and love in this ravishingly beautiful song, which Finn wrote for a dying friend who was leaving her young children behind. Finn's writing and Dowling's performance help us revel in the love even as we are stabbed by the sorrow; the sense of loss is almost unbearable, but we can just see how to bear it and go on.
That's only one of many fine performances here. Will McGarrahan is particularly affecting in "Mark's All-Male Thanksgiving," which wonderfully evokes the feeling of shared community and newly created familial ties that flowered in gay men's lives just before AIDS. Jose Delgado brings warmth and wit to everything he sings, and his bluesy tribute to Joe Papp, the irascible founder of New York's Public Theater, is a delight. Michael Mendiola is appealingly boyish in some of the show's lighter moments -- one song about dogs and another about a chicken-loving eccentric named Fred -- then grows up fast in "When the Earth Stopped Turning," which recalls the death of Finn's beloved mother, Barbara.
In many ways, Barbara Finn is at the heart of this show. Her son's celebration of her warmth, her passion for life, her joy, runs like a golden thread through many of the songs, and it shines brightest in the one named for the house where she raised him, "14 Dwight Ave., Natick, Massachusetts." Here Leigh Barrett gives a wise, loving performance as the dying mother who wants to tour the old neighborhood one last time, to remember how lucky she was to live there and to have the friends she had.
For all his losses, her son feels lucky, too, and he shares his luck with us. If his specific songs about specific people feel more true, more complete, than the more generalized hymn of loss that is "Goodbye/Boom Boom," Finn's attempt to address the devastation of Sept. 11, 2001, maybe that's because grief is always most real when it is most personal. And in mourning for his friends, Finn helps us to mourn for ours and for ourselves -- and then, joyfully, to turn from death back to life, and to embrace it while we can.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.