As someone who’s used social media for everything from meeting new friends to learning to generating career opportunities to dating, I’ve been thinking a lot about the underside of social media. What if it doesn’t help us connect? What if people don’t like our posts or accept our invitations or offer support when we so clearly needed it? What if we do that hideous comparison game of viewing our own real lives with all their difficulties side-by-side with the perfect lives that people espouse to live via their shiny screens? If we already have anxiety, and who among us doesn’t?, interacting on social media is nearly as frightening as the real world. It’s yet another avenue for rejection and disconnection.
These are the kinds of questions and scenarios that Dear Evan Hansen raises in its gorgeous premiere production at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. The odd and awkward actions online and off that are showcased made me laugh, cry, and contemplate just how hard it is to wrestle through our digital world and navigate its border with the physical world.
There were so many times that my heart just hurt for Evan Hansen, a sweet and shy teenager who’s just trying to get by without having a breakdown. He doesn’t have a lot of friends—he never has—and his family life is less than ideal. He always feels separate and apart from the world around him. He’s someone with a good heart who just can’t connect with people, sometimes rubbing them the wrong way with his awkwardness. He reminded me of a man I used to know, a man I wish I still knew, who also suffers from the same social anxieties and misfortunes with people. I sent that man a virtual hug during the show, not online but in my heart, and I hope wherever he is that he felt it.
Unlike most musicals, Dear Evan Hansen‘s songs aren’t commercial breaks. They move the story along with power, grace, and humor in just the right amount at just the right time. Ben Platt’s voice and demeanor exudes charm and heartbreak, grace and raw honesty. I wanted to run up on stage numerous times, give him a hug, and tell him that it’s all going to be okay. Because that’s really all he needs to know—that someone’s going to stand by him, listen to him, and care about him, especially when he feels uncomfortable and frustrated. He needs to know that someone’s going to be patient with him when he can’t be patient with himself. Isn’t that what we all need and want? Isn’t that the real definition of love? Tom Stoppard said, “It’s no trick loving somebody at their best. Love is loving them at their worst.” I agree.
After seeing Dear Evan Hansen, I didn’t have the best weekend. I’ve got a few personal situations I’m juggling that feel sad and confusing. To be honest, I’m at a little bit of a loss of what to do, say, or feel. My heart and mind feel jumbled and tired. All I could think to do to feel better was smile more, reach out more, and feel more. The instinct might be to shrink away from discomfort, but thanks to Dear Evan Hansen, I leaned into my weekend. The results were mixed, but feeling all of it actually felt better.
And that’s the power of theater. It reminds us that we aren’t alone in our experiences. So much of what we think, feel, see, and bear is shared across space and time by so many others. At its core, Dear Evan Hansen is about friendship and our need to feel cared for and accepted, flaws and all. See it. You’ll walk away a better, kinder person for carrying this story with you online and off.
Dear Evan Hansen will be at Arena Stage until August 23rd. And I’m sure it will have a very long life in many cities across the country soon.