Life After Death

At LTW, three fine actors offer well-paced and good-natured monologues centered on funerals

In Three Viewings at Live Theater Workshop, playwright Jeffrey Hatcher explores poignantly and convincingly what happens after life.

No, not what happens after one has passed over into that mysterious ether of heaven or hell (or when one merely becomes a buffet for worms). Rather, Hatcher's focus is on what happens to those who remain after loved ones have died.

Hatcher marries humor with a sweet sadness as he shows us three folks who deal with loss and grief—as well as the business of loss and grief. He uses the convention of monologues, which make great demands of actors—you can't rely on your castmates to pick you up if you falter. It's just you out there, telling your story as the playwright has instructed, without that invisible but protective fourth wall to separate you and the audience.

Director Sabian Trout has found three capable actors to deliver their characters' stories. The three "acts"—each about 30 minutes long—involve us with Emil (Keith Wick), the undertaker of the funeral home where all of the characters conduct their business of death; Mac (Jodi Ajanovic), whose monologue is titled "The Thief of Tears;" and Virginia (Lesley Abrams), in "Thirteen Things About Ed Carpolotti." Each piece is well-constructed, tight and economical, distilling each character's story into a package which makes few demands on us—except that we listen. And if we do, we are rewarded with insight into—and appreciation of—these three fellow sojourners as they negotiate difficult times.

Emil, whose story is titled "Tell-Tale," is well-versed in the business of death. He knows everyone in town—his services have been needed by every family at some point. He knows family secrets and the minister's rote elegiac speech (with only a pitiful "insert name here" personalization). Yet Emil, who stands around at all of the viewings, has found love—or at least a very serious infatuation—with Tessie, a real-estate agent who often appears at the viewings of her fellow citizens and clients. He stands softly reciting, "I love you, I love you, I love you," hoping that at some moment, she will sense his adoration, while equally hoping that she will not. He knows the pain of yearning as well as the pain of paralysis.

Wick is a very talented and skilled actor, showing a clear understanding of and sympathy for Emil's world. His is the only story which does not take place in one moment of time, and Wick moves from moment to moment with ease and precision. Emil is far from a charismatic person, but Wick's ability to embody his core wins our hearts.

The second piece, "The Thief of Tears," is probably the most challenging, chiefly because of its odd character and her appalling preoccupation. Her way-beyond-quirky behavior consists of a compulsion to steal the jewelry from decedents as they lay in their open caskets while their family and friends come to pay their respects. She seeks out strangers in the newspaper obituaries, and she mingles with the other mourners, pretending she is one of them. As Mac shares her story, she is headed to her grandmother's funeral, intent on stealing the ring her grandmother had promised her when she was a child—which was then pulled away in a horribly teasing manner. We ultimately grow to understand some of the sources of Mac's behavior, and we are not only entertained by her antics, but touched by her sorrows.

Ajanovic does a very decent job with her characterization of Mac; however, the full scope of the character is a bit beyond her grasp. Mac is indeed a complicated character, and she would present most actors with huge challenges. Ajanovic gets at them well enough, but she doesn't stand as firmly as she needs to on the bedrock of Mac's complications and contradictions to make the character truly credible.

The final viewing features Virginia, a no-nonsense middle-age woman who has lost her husband, Ed Carpolotti. He suffered his first heart attack around Halloween, with another at Thanksgiving, and the fatal one just before Christmas. "He loved holidays," she quips. But Virginia, whose relationship with Ed often included them reciting the couplets of "Mary Had a Little Lamb" to each other, was unaware of the "wheelin' and dealin'" side of Ed, who racked up quite a debt. Because she paid no attention to what he asked her to sign, she has now become responsible for his debt. She begins getting threatening phone calls from unsavory sorts who want her to make good on the sizable sums owed to them. She has become unsure about where to turn, but is offered a clever and touching last gift from Ed, which finds its way to her after he has passed away.

Abrams offers a credible and engaging characterization, firmly grounded in a true sense of Virginia's wit, dry understatement, and ability to stay tethered even in a potentially dangerous situation. Abrams invites us to care for Virginia without being at all cloying or needy. And we do.

Trout has pulled these stories and characters into an entertaining union which gives us small but important things to think about as we experience the evening. The group has recognized that Hatcher's tightly crafted piece needs a tightly crafted production, and they deliver a well-paced and good-natured show.

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