Pictured: David Cale and musicians. Photo by Liz Lauren. 

By Sheri Flanders

How well do we know our parents? How well do we try to know them? And how well could we possibly know them even if we tried our best? David Cale paints a touching and expansive view of his family in his stunning show We’re Only Alive For a Short Amount of Time now playing at the Goodman Theatre through October 21st.

Standing on a stark black stage decorated only with silver bird cages suspended in the air, Cale begins an achingly solitary journey into the mind of his parents and into his own heart. Stories based around the internal life can be a challenge to translate to a theatrical format effectively, yet Cale is a master storyteller with a nearly unbelievable story to tell. As the lives of the Cale family unfold, director Robert Falls reveals an exquisite six-piece orchestra (piano, viola, harp, cello, trumpet and clarinet) enveloped in the darkness behind a scrim, foreshadowing the mysterious depths yet to plumb.

Raised in the armpit of England, young David nurtures a coterie of exotic birds, trying to find beauty in his bleak existence and an escape from the constant bickering of his parents, both of whom which he has lovingly constructed in beautifully well-rounded, hilarious, unflinching portraits. For anyone who has ever felt trapped in the wrong life, his recollection of growing up and survival in the miserable town of Luten is both balm and a cautionary tale – a reminder that things can always get much worse, so count your blessings and hurry up and get on with it.

Staged last year during the Goodman’s New Stages Festival, the return version of the show is much sleeker and faster, eliminating applause breaks. 99% of the time, this is extremely effective, building the pace of the story to a dizzying crescendo. However, a break at one or two points in the story would be welcome for a chance for the audience simply to….breathe and absorb the emotional impact.

The choruses of the songs have been pared down resulting in amazingly perfect, complex and beautiful strains, some of which have the romantic affect of classic standards from the likes of Gershwin, Porter and Berlin. Cale’s characters and the orchestra paint such a vivid and lovely picture together that one begins to imagine a fully-staged version of the show with a female singer, portraying his mother, crooning the high notes of the melody of his “I Love You More Than You Know,” her voice sailing free on high among the skylarks.

A wholly unique and electrifying interlude, take wing and fly directly to experience We’re Only Alive For a Short Amount of Time before your time runs out.

WE’RE ONLY ALIVE FOR A SHORT AMOUNT OF TIME runs through October 21. For more information visit

About author

Sheri Flanders

Sheri Flanders is an actor, writer and comedian in Chicago. She is head writer for Choice The Musical, half of the comedy duo Flanders and part of the Infinite Sundaes musical house ensemble. Sheri is a contributor for Chicagoland Musical Theater, a faculty member of the Second City music program and co-owner of Flanders Consulting.