Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Wives of The Dead"

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"What Happened in Boston, Willie"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Larry Stark

"Wives of The Dead"

by Todd Hearon
Directed by Rosemarie Ellis

Production & Lights by Kevin Kidd
Stage & Graphics by Eric Vogt
Set by Wives Crew
Photography by Michael Walker
Music by David Bell
Publicity by Maggie Dietz
Box Office by Cathy Kidd
House by Maria Brandt & Jeffrey Jones
Assistance by Emily Brandt & Jean Sheikh

Sylvia...........................Kara Crowe
Elizabeth...................Phyllis Rittner

They are two sisters, married on the same day, and apparently widowed on the same day by --- by a what, a bomb? an explosion anyway half a world away in some cramped Middle-East sea, though the Navy's air-sea-rescuers refuse to give up hope. The sympathetic well-wishers of the church have gone, leaving the two finally free in the family home these sailor-couples shared, alone with the tempestuous and often spiteful memories of their sibling lives together.

For one is the porcelain-prim dutiful daughter of her aristocratic mother, and the younger the whiskey-swilling champion of their Irish lobster-man father. Todd Hearon's play in an uninterrupted hour and a half tears their lives, their town, their family, their marriages, their love and rivalries with one another into shreds as surely as angry waves. It is a play as deep and as awsome as the sea itself.

Each has their secrets, but Kara Crowe as smoldering Sylvia is much more likely to vent her rages against hypocrisy and against the prissy contempt townies hold for the sailors who drag their livelihood out of the salty deep with strong backs and bare hands. She is tolerant, even proud of her drowned father's taciturn pride and stops a the bar between lobster-pots and home, and of the whores-in-every-port that made her husband --- and probably her brother-in-law --- a man. She faces the shocks and disdain of the world directly, with pugnacious pride and satiric mimicry.

As the quieter but no less proud Elizabeth, Phyllis Rittner is more inclined to see things from society's point of view. She's the one who visits her Alzheimer's-ridden mother and goes to church. Her outward calm hides torment, however, and her revealed secret proves a trump card.

Both girls (they are around 25) have hilarious family reminiscences to share, and girlish confessions of courtship, wedding and their husbands. Each has a knack for mimicry, and a store of petty hurts and wounds from their lives together that come to hand when defending or attacking.

The emotional tides here can turn, at a phrase, from vindictiveness to apology, as each tends, in the heat of the supercharged moment, to go too far. There is a hint of lyric exaggeration in their memories and metaphors, yet at every step and twist things seem logical, the conversation believable, the rush of emotion from crest to crest compelling and engrossing. Todd Hearon's ear is tuned to subtleties (the repeated comment "Can you believe it?"; the many times both sisters begin to speak at once, and times when they speak past one another) that keep them from caricature or monstrosity. And Rosemary Ellis' direction makes the entire evening an engrossing, uninterrupted whole.

The Bridge Theatre Company has given this world premiere production lovingly nuanced detail, from father's easy chair (in which neither ever sits) to the delicate teacups from which Sylvia gulps her whiskey and the huge family Bible behind which Elizabeth hid the bottle from prying church-ladies' eyes. And in typical Bridge Theatre modesty they omit the fact that their playwright-in-residence won a cash award in competition for this play. And, once he has been given his Doctorate in English this semester, Todd Hearon will begin working full-time on a trilogy of which "Wives of The Dead" is the first.

I can hardly wait...


"Wives of The Dead" (8 - 23 February)
Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide