Last weekend, the UVa Department of Drama and the Virginia Players presented The Last Five Years, a musical by Jason Robert Brown. The production was directed by fourth-year College student Wesley Diener, with fellow fourth-year Lydia Flock and third-year student Jack Gereski making up the two-person cast. The show follows Cathy and Jamie (played by Flock and Gereski, respectively) as the two twenty-something New Yorkers fall in and out of love.
The Last Five Years was an ambitious choice for the three students, seeing as the structure of the play was far from conventional: Flock’s Cathy tells her story backwards, while Gereski’s Jamie tells his chronologically. Diener said that the unique qualities of the show caught his interest immediately, but he was not sure how to execute it at UVa.
“It all happened very circumstantially,” he explained. “I have worked a lot with Dave Dalton in the [Drama] department with directing…I had just mentioned, ‘I really want to do this show The Last Five Years, but I don’t know where I would do it, or who I would do it with, I don’t want to do it in the SAB, I don’t know who could do it because it’s a hard show.'”
Luckily, Diener’s plans started to come together when Flock, a Drama major, also showed interest in putting on The Last Five Years.
“Lydia, who’s playing Cathy in the show, she messaged me, about halfway through the semester,” Diener said. “‘Hey, Dave told me I should talk to you, because I was talking to him about how I want to do a role study with Cathy.’ So we met up and we talked about it, and we were like, ‘Okay, let’s do it!'”
Before he knew it, Diener was quickly getting to know Flock and Gereski – a fast development that the Music major and opera singer said was one of the benefits of having just two people to direct.
“It’s really been a joy to work with them. They’re very thoughtful actors, and so it’s really nice to engage with them in discussion,” Diener said. “I feel really fortunate to have been challenged by them, but also that they’ve really trusted me, and we’ve all grown together and discovered together what this production of The Last Five Years is…We took ownership…I’m really proud of the work that we’ve all done to discover the work.”
According to Diener, the strong bond that he formed with Flock and Gereski mirrors some of the major themes of The Last Five Years, a play that focuses on close relationships between young people.
“I think, for me, the intimacy of human experience is what’s really special about this show, and I think even if we haven’t been in the exact circumstances that the characters have been in, there are so many things that are so relatable,” Diener said. “I’m really happy that this show’s going on when it is, because I think now theatre really serves a purpose of human connection, and human experience, and I really am passionate right now about putting on work that inspires people to engage with those around them.”
In addition to the effort that Flock and Gereski devoted to conveying the production’s human qualities, they also faced the daunting prospect of performing the show’s difficult musical numbers, including fast-paced ones such as “The Schmuel Song” and “Climbing Uphill.”
“I was just like, ‘I don’t know who could do it. I don’t know who could play [Jamie and Cathy],’ so we’re really lucky to have Greg Harris,” Diener said. “It’s such a vocal tour de force, also, for the two actors, and I was just like, ‘I don’t know who can sing these roles. I don’t want it to be anything less than what it could be,’…Jack and Lydia truly shine, both vocally and dramatically, and the music is so special.”
As Diener moves toward graduation in the spring and the hopes of further building his professional opera career, he reflected on advice he would give to younger students.
“I would say, if there’s something you’re interested in, take a class, meet a professor, and see where it goes,” Diener said. “For me, I knew I was interested in directing, and I’m grateful I took [the class] when I did, but I didn’t take it until my third year! Once I did, I was like, ‘Yes! I need to do this. I can do this.'”
To Diener, it really is never too late to discover a new passion at UVA.
“I did First Year Players, I did Spectrum Theatre, I sing in U-Singers and Chamber Singers, and I served on the Student Council Arts Committee…I’m really grateful to be able to do a lot of things that aren’t directly curricular,” he said. “If there’s an interest, there’s a class to take, or a person to talk to, who’s happy to talk to you… figure out what the fit is.”