A few weekends ago, I joined my sister, uncle and cousins in New York City for our twice-yearly Broadway show/Cuban cuisine gathering.
Victor’s Café, located on 52nd Street, is the best destination (absent Havana itself, Miami’s Calle Ocho, or my grandmother’s kitchen) for delicious empanadas, croquetas de jamon, ropa vieja, and lechon asado. The restaurant is a culinary pilgrimage I look forward to, always making sure I step through its doors with an empty stomach.
Before our dinner reservation, though, and muchos mojitos, we stepped out of Penn Station into an Uber, and headed to the August Wilson Theatre to catch that evening’s performance of the “Groundhog Day” musical, based on the 1993 darkly comedic movie.
Filling in the mighty shoes of Bill Murray, his silver screen counterpart, Andy Karl deftly plays “Phil Connors,” a cynical, arrogant weatherman covering the marmot murmurings in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, on Feb. 2.
A funny thing happens on the way to the groundhog, though. Phil gets caught in a time loop, endlessly repeating the day and his interactions with the various denizens in the town, which include his news colleagues, producer Rita and cameraman Larry, and Ned Ryerson, an overeager former classmate of Phil’s-turned-insurance salesman.
As Phil knowingly re-lives each day, each moment, a great conversion story unfolds.
On his first day in the small town, when an unexpected snowstorm strands him and the news crew, Phil lashes out, in denial that he couldn’t predict the outcome, as his job description implies: “I make the weather!”
As the February 2s pile up, and he realizes he has lost control, Phil turns from angry and spiteful, to rebellious and criminal, kidnapping Punxsutawney Phil and leading the cops on a wild car chase. No consequences in a life that goes nowhere, he reasons.
Later, he falls into despair, even attempting to end his own life multiple times to escape his nightmare.
Phil even manipulates the people and events around him, at times, for personal and monetary gain.
Fate, however, and the eternal buzz of the alarm clock, keeps him waking up every morning at 6 a.m. He has the knowledge of each day, but no lasting connection, no riches.
As the days unfold, Phil begins to mature, and grow outside his self-serving ways. Spending more time with Ned, he learns about his ex classmate’s tragic past, and begins to feel empathy toward the man he once shunned. He gets closer to Rita, seeing in her more than just the stuffy producer he once perceived her to be.
Phil also struggles with the inevitability of life: death. He wonders why he can’t prevent the fate of a homeless man. One day, Phil finds him already-deceased on a park bench. The next day and the next days thereafter, he feeds the man, keeps him warm, but the result is still the same.
It is in these moments, when Phil truly gives of himself to those around him, listens more than talks, and sees the beauty in every moment, that he finally breaks the cycle and awakens to a new sunrise, and a new life.
The musical ends with the closing song, “Seeing You,” where Phil’s eyes are newly-open. He admits that he’s “spent a lifetime seeking signs, reading lines, trying to forecast the future, always staying a day ahead.”
He was “sure by now I knew this place” that he’d spent a few lifetimes in, but Phil realizes that “I know nothing.”
Looking at his now-love, Rita, he tells her “now I’m here … and I’m seeing you for the first time.”
At times, I can be as self-interested, bitter, angry and despairing as Phil Connors. However, I hope it doesn’t take 10 years’ worth of the same day (the movie director, Harold Ramis’ account of how long Phil was trapped) for me to learn my lesson, to surrender myself to something greater, to make my life a sacrifice for others, to be born anew.
It’s best for me, and for all of us, to remember Saint Paul: “For if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom 8:12-13).
Would that we spend all of our days like Phil Connor’s first (and) last day in Punxsutawney: fresh eyes, curious minds and open hearts.
Peter G. Sánchez is a staff writer for the Catholic Star Herald.