If we couldn’t laugh about death, we wouldn’t be human. Bekah Brunstetter knows this; her sad, charming comedy now playing at Ars Nova illuminates the plight of a young widow by means of a smart and touching mix of humor and delicacy.
L.A. Law‘s Jill Eikenberry, appropriately regal and perfectly (overly) coiffed as Hope, the repressed, patrician mother-in-law, brings a touch of star power—though it’s not needed—to the cast, convincingly portraying a typical upper-class Connecticut “WASP” (in quotes because such people are by no means always Protestant). She’s at a loss as to what to do with—how to tame, really—her free-spirited, insecure daughter-in-law Melody (Wrenn Schmidt). Brunstetter has explored parts of this terrain before (in You May Go Now, for example), and here she creates characters who are especially solid and believable.
As 25-year-old Melody, the centerpiece of the drama, Ms. Schmidt delivers a wrenching performance. With her girlish voice and unselfconscious prettiness she at first seems little more than a bit of gossamer, at sixes and sevens in new husband Craig’s suburban childhood home while he (Chad Hoeppner, a little too actorly in the less meaty role) vanishes on a succession of business trips and treats her like a too-delicate flower. But when the endearingly awkward Brad (the excellent, naturalistic Jonny Orsini) turns up and sexual tension arises, the resourceful Ms. Schmidt, under the sure guidance of director Stephen Brackett, begins peeling the onion of Melody’s character, and by the time of Craig’s untimely death she is having her way with our hearts.
Characteristically for a play by Ms. Brunstetter, reality blurs a bit; in this case it happens with the arrival of Craig’s apparition, a dramatic device that provides one or two spooky moments but is really here to further the plot and illuminate Melody’s interior world. Not at all gimmicky, it’s an effective way to lay bare her emotions as she absorbs her loss. And that process, not at all morbid, casts a warm glow on the humanity of all concerned, even stiff Hope.
The pared-down language jabs true, revealing relationships and character with precision, pathos, and humor. Mother-in-law and daughter-in-law plan the funeral:
MELODY: Maybe we could put out all of the candies and stuff he liked, Little Debbie nutty bars! Skittles! And sour patch kids!
HOPE: Craig doesn’t eat trash like that.
MELODY: Um, yes he did. Those are his favorites. He hid them in his car.
HOPE: You can’t serve CANDY at a funeral. What would people think?
MELODY: They’d be like: yay! Candy!
HOPE: The caterer will handle the food, I’ve already placed the order.
In that sequence we have it all: groping to come to terms with a sudden new reality; the shift from present to past tense (“doesn’t eat…”yes he did“); a ray of bittersweet humor from Melody; and Hope’s strained reaction to the younger woman’s freer spirit. The play is in part a modern comedy of manners, asking how we behave—and ought to behave—when a loved one dies unexpectedly. It’s also a brilliantly staged showcase for a fine cast in an excellent new work by one of our top playwrights.
Photos by Ben Arons.