Postmortem, WNEP Theater Foundation, at the Playground. Inspired by our fascination with obituaries and the raw appeal of real lives, the WNEP Theater Foundation has found fresh fodder for improvisation. Each night a tight ensemble of seven performers takes a newspaper obituary and performs an hour-long characterization loosely based on that small amount of information. The real strength of this concept is that the actors give us more than just a hypothetical survey of one person’s life, also portraying characters who have no direct contact with the central figure to provide context and comedy. The atmosphere created for each of the decades represented (the 1920s through 1990s the night I attended, introduced by audio vignettes from each period) grounds the production, making it a comment on America’s history as well as that of the individual.

This sort of improvisation isn’t solely devoted to making the audience laugh easily and often–although there are funny moments. On opening night the audience heard tales of babies lost to the croup, jobs terminated, suicides prompted by the 1929 crash, women who attempted to sell their sons for drugs, and bitter, estranged couples who could not forgive. Carrying themes through the decades and their various characters, the talented cast show off their skills. Conveying wit and drama in a truly human manner, Postmortem successfully mines a concept that could easily have been exploitative. –Jenn Goddu