An agoraphobic mortician, a homeschooled teenager, an increasingly forgetful grandmother, the ghost of a deceased spouse, and a man who just might sweep all the doldrums away take center stage in Carey Crim’s not-quite-perfect dramedy Wake, whose West Coast Premiere at South Pasadena’s Fremont Centre Theatre benefits enormously from Matt Kirkwood’s deft direction, an all-around terrific ensemble, and a topnotch production design.
Alison Blanchard stars as mortician Molly, virtually embalmed in the family funeral home since a freak accident took her husband’s life three years ago and left her terrified of the risks presented by the world beyond her front door.
Preparing the dead for burial might seem lonely work for Widow Molly were it not for the safety and ease she feels in their comfortingly silent presence, that and the ghost of her late husband Peter (Lauren McCormack) who keeps popping in for chitchat in a theatrical tradition that dates back to Blithe Spirit, Topper, Hamlet, and for all I know as far back as the Ancient Greeks.
Meanwhile in the world of the living, Molly’s 70something mother Ivy (Nancy B. Berggren) dreams of winning the Publishers Clearing House $1,000,000 sweepstakes even as incipient Alzheimer’s leaves Grandma little time left to commit her memories to video while attempting to get her daughter out of the house and on the road to recovery.
It’s the latter desire which prompts Ivy to present Molly with a pair of plane tickets to Moscow, to be shared three months hence with teenage Sam (Allie Costa), who’d like nothing better than for Mom and her to do what Chekhov’s Three Sisters never got to—give the fabled Russian capital a visit.
If only there were something—or someone—who could give Molly that much-needed push out the door.
Fortunately, said someone does indeed turn up in the person of 50ish documentarian Joe (Michael Conners), who arrives at Mortuary Molly as the grieving son of a “client” and sticks around to honor Ivy’s request to videotape her recollections for posterity—and because darn-it-all if Molly isn’t middle-aged irresistible.
Wake proves a crowd-pleaser in this its second production (following a World Premiere at Jeff Daniels’ Purple Rose Theatre in Daniels’ hometown of Chelsea, Michigan), though Crim’s dramedy could be even better with additional fine-tuning, like perhaps excising an Act Two plot-twist that is simply too good (and improbable) to be true, even in a play in which fate’s finger has already been proven to be fickle indeed.
Still, Crim is clearly a playwright to watch (her latest, Conviction, arrives in SoCal this fall in its Rolling World Premiere at Producing Artistic Director Karyl Lynn Burns’ Rubicon Theatre), and I for one found myself increasingly drawn into the world she has created for Molly and her entourage.
Under actor-slash-actors’ director Kirkwood’s assured hand, these are also characters you come to care about, particularly as brought to life by a terrific cast of L.A. film/TV/theater professionals.
The marvelous Blanchard has a grown-up girl-next-door quality that has you instantly on Molly’s side and keeps you there, even when our leading lady is at her most stubbornly agoraphobic. 20something Costa carries off the teenager thing quite credibly indeed, imbuing Sam with spunk, sass, and heart. Berggren is simply wonderful as that rarity, a Golden Girl written with hardly an iota of condescension (even if the running blowup doll gag does skirt dangerously close). A fine McCormack does his best to fill out Wake’s sole underwritten character, and hoary as the visiting ghost convention is, wonder of wonders, it once again works, especially when you’ve got Molly responding to her late hubby only to have a bewildered Joe thinking she’s talking to him. Best of all is the superb Connors, absolutely convincing in an adult son’s (and longtime pet owner’s) grief and a grown-up’s head-over-heels ardor.
Director Kirkwood’s decision to eschew the abstract staging/design of Wake’s World Premiere in favor of a more literal approach proves particularly effective in a play that benefits from a reality base given its several significant flights of fancy, speaking of which the aftermath of an unexpected second act knock on Molly’s door turns out to be one of the most brilliantly conceived and stunningly executed directorial inspirations you’ll see all year.
Aaron Henderson’s scenic design (in collaboration with Monika Henderson this round) manages to give us two different settings (Molly’s home’s living room/kitchen and the family mortuary) on the Fremont’s compact stage, Kirkwood’s clever blocking keeping the two locations separate and distinct in our minds. Katy Brisbois’s costumes, Susanna Wong’s props, and Carol Doehring’s lighting are first-rate as well, and master sound designer Ken Sawyer’s selection of indie pop songs by Ingrid Michaelson et al links scenes to perfection.
Matt Sandlin is stage manager. Wake is produced by Kimberly Van Luin for SeaGlass Theatre. Paul Stroili is associate producer.
Though it might have benefitted from additional workshopping between its World and West Coast Premieres, Wake has introduced me to a playwright whose upcoming Conviction is now on my must-see list for September.
Whether the Fremont Centre Theatre is five minutes from where you live (as it is for this reviewer) or a bit farther afield, Wake makes a visit to picturesque South Pasadena well worth the drive (and your while).
Fremont Centre Theatre, 1000 Fremont Ave., South Pasadena.
May 1, 2014
Photos: Melissa McCormack