The Living Room Theatre not so long ago recalibrated its mission: It would now be a company dedicated exclusively to producing work by playwrights currently or previously based in Kansas City.
So I’m happy to report that director Rusty Sneary, co-founder of the Living Room, delivers a crisply performed production of Forrest Attaway’s “The Grave,” which is by turns richly comic and tangibly poignant. The program bills this piece as a “comedy,” and indeed it is. But it’s a comedy about life and death. As we’ve come to expect from Attaway, this play is unique. It may owe a debt to the sensibilities of certain older works, but Attaway creates a fascinating little universe of his own making.
Audiences saw the first half of this play a few years ago at KC Fringe. Now Attaway has created a full-length piece in which two one-act plays, set at different times, create a tough, sympathetic view of a family in which basic communication is a daunting challenge.
Act I takes place in the summer of 2010 at an open grave where a widow, Amanda (Peggy Friesen), and her son, Charles (Matthew Ellis), have come to bury Charles’s father and Amanda’s ex-husband. The emotions are complicated because before succumbing to cancer, Mitchell, the deceased, had left Amanda for a younger woman, a classics professor at the local university. And the wording of his life insurance policy is specific: If Amanda and his younger paramour, Elizabeth (Amy Attaway), bury Mitchell together by hand with the provided shovels, they will divide $1 million. It was, apparently, his way of getting the two women to know each other so that together they could share a fuller picture of the man they both loved.
Friesen and Amy Attaway are well-matched in the running dialogue that alternates between tears, anger and raucous laughter. Friesen, often cast in patrician roles because of her elegant poise and precise diction, here plays a woman boiling with anger who gets drunk with the woman she initially sees as her arch-enemy. Friesen embraces Amanda’s jealous loathing of Elizabeth, which gradually softens to something like begrudging respect.
Friesen and Amy Attaway, who delivers a precise comic performance, make a formidable team. Attaway is impressive in her handling of a complicated, if brief, relationship with a woman she hopes find common ground with. Indeed, Elizabeth asks very little of Amanda. I don’t want you to like me, Elizabeth says at one point, just don’t hate me.
Act II, set in the summer of 1995, also takes place at a gravesite. Mitchell (Curtis Smith) and the pot-smoking teenager Charles are at the cemetery to bury Mitchell’s father. Based on the evidence, the old man wasn’t terribly popular. In a way, this is the more successful of the two acts. The writing is a bit more focused and feels more real.
Ellis, in his local debut, has created two distinct versions of Charles. In Act I, he’s the peacekeeper trying to honor his father’s wishes. In Act II we see the younger version: Rebellious, cynical, disaffected and unable to process heavy emotions. The reverse transformation is amazing. Smith, who I’ve seen a few times in smallish roles, here reveals himself to be a comic actor of formidable gifts. And he follows the wise old maxim: Less is more. As he relates family stories and, ultimately, sobering information about his health, Smith gives us a performance full of small surprises and superb timing.
As a whole, “The Grave” offers irresistible comic writing (Attaway is very good at set-ups) and philosophical musings that give the viewer plenty to think about on the way home.
The playwright chose not to give this play a specific geographic setting. But Forrest Attaway, like yours truly, is a Texas expatriate. And the image of lonely graveyards and family history shot through with “colorful” dysfunctional characters sure felt like Texas to me.
“The Grave” runs through June 24 at the Living Room Theatre, 1818 McGee. Call 816-533-5857 or go to http://www.thelivingroomkc.com.