at Cafe Voltaire

Evelyn doesn’t dance, actually. She sits in her rented house, on the very same couch where she lost her virginity to her recently buried husband, and rocks back and forth with his flannel shirt against her cheek. The moment I saw this, all sorts of warning bells went off in my head.

But fortunately Cynthia Hanson, who wrote and performs this 75-minute monologue, is both competent and canny. As a writer, she manages to avoid most of the traps of overt sentimentality. As a performer, she is warm, believable, and aware of the pitfalls of messy displays of emotion; dramatic tension is better served when tears are withheld. Rather than weep into her dead husband’s shirt, Evelyn dons it and goes about her business. In the hands of a lesser actress, Evelyn might have been just another steel magnolia, pretending to be strong while she wallows in pathos. Hanson makes her a tough Texas housewife just changing out of her black dress and waiting for her two small children to go to sleep so she can sneak a cigarette and shake free of the tensions of “a lovely afternoon at the funeral home.”

As she unwinds, she chats with the audience about the absurd mechanics of funerals, her new identity as a widow, and the reactions of family and neighbors to her loss–they’ve offered everything from sour-cream pound cake to an envelope full of clip-and-save coupons. She sips from a bottle of Wild Turkey so she’ll know “how Larry felt the night he died,” and she rails at the deceased for not being strong enough to survive the failure of his oil-rig leasing business when the entire west-Texas community he lived in was mired in the same sort of financial disaster. “Try telling oil people not to speculate,” she says. “Boom or bust, but you’ve got to be strong enough to take the bust.” Larry turned to drink and finally went for a midnight swim that may or may not have turned out the way he planned.

Evelyn’s marriage was far from perfect, but she preferred her husband to the $50,000 insurance policy he left as compensation. Stuck in a dying town with her babies and her ancient furniture, she must not give in to the despair that drowned him. But Evelyn is a life force and creator after her own fashion. She has her children, and soon she will go back to checking groceries and fight the emptiness of day-to-day existence.

Evelyn Dances is mounted in the basement of Cafe Voltaire, a shabby, slapdash space appropriate for a household laboring under severe economic strain. The music thumping in the cafe directly above might’ve been coming from some rowdy neighbor’s house (if only it had been country western), and it did nothing to distract the audience or Hanson, who played on splendidly in a dress straight from the women’s wear department at K mart. A little bigger budget might’ve ruined this production–there can be nothing of the smell of money surrounding Evelyn’s plight.

As it is, Evelyn Dances has an air of making do–a rule of thumb for Evelyn, who knows all about the dangers of speculation. Under Pam McDaniel’s competent direction, Hanson’s performance is a marvel of restraint and grace under pressure. Evelyn lets the audience do her weeping for her.