Lifeline Theatre

Most of us are frightened by death, the hooded specter, the hideous unknown, ready to pounce when we least expect it. Our natural aversion to it makes for few experts on the topic. Woody Allen, always talking about what he’s not supposed to, is one of the few. Woody’s observations on death are many. One of my favorites is: “Death is the only thing we do that’s as easy as lying down.” If you can look death in the face and laugh, then the unknown loses a little of its terror.

Scott McPherson, author of Til the Fat Lady Sings, clearly has the same philosophy. A black comedy, Til the Fat Lady Sings is a very funny exploration of death and people’s reactions to it, taking us through one full day in the life of a family whose teenage son has just been killed in a motorcycle accident.

The entire action occurs in the O’Neills’ kitchen, littered with the food people have brought for the family. Pat O’Neill (Lee Guthrie), mother of the dead boy, is coping as best she can. She graciously accepts phone call after phone call, ignoring callous remarks and allowing her overly solicitous neighbor Marjorie (Celeste Lynch) to feel like an angel of mercy.

When Pat, exhausted, goes to take a nap, we discover that there’s more bad karma in the house than that created by death. Sean O’Neill (Kraig Swartz), brother of the dead youth, feels cut off from his mother, left out, abandoned: because she’s been dealing with everyone else, his mother has hardly said two words to him since his arrival. Sean shares his grief instead with Grandmother O’Neill (Nancy Lollar). Loving and sweet, she listens devotedly to Sean’s complaints.

Into this happy home come the sympathy-toting masses. The scene evolves into a comic nightmare of weirdos trying desperately to do and say the right thing, all the while making matters worse.

Amid this bedlam, Sean struggles to express his feelings toward death. He sees how ridiculous everyone else’s pathetic attempts are, but he has no solution. He is at his wit’s end when in walks Michael, a third brother (who is AWOL, unbeknownst to his mother and brother).

Michael, to make some sense of his brother’s death, ends up doing a Japanese dance he once saw, infusing it with his own pain. Sean tries to wrench it from him. “Teach me that!” he cries. “I can’t,” Michael explains, “I don’t even know what I did.” “But I want to do that!” he pleads. “Michael did that,” explains the wise grandmother, and Sean is left still searching for his own way to cope.

His grandmother finally sets his mind working in the right direction, and when “the other shoe drops,” as she keeps insisting it will, Sean knows what he must do. But in a final confrontation with his mother, as Sean sees it, she tries to take even that knowledge away from him.

The play itself has many problems, the greatest being that McPherson has made the wrong person the protagonist. Clearly this is the mother’s play. It is she who must console and appease everyone: they all want something from her and lean on her in her most vulnerable hour. It is she who makes contact with every character, while she removes herself from feeling any real emotion. And ultimately her discoveries about death and her reaction to it draw the play to its conclusion.

But McPherson has twisted the focus to make the unattractive Sean the hero, detracting from the play’s focus on death. He makes the problematic mother-son relationship at least as important, but the play does not really explore that relationship, and the supposed resolution is unsatisfying.

Yet the play has a number of funny scenes, and a few beautifully poetic monologues. McPherson uses the garden as a symbol of the ongoing generations, making for some lovely imagery. (“Your garden looks thirsty,” whispers neighbor Marjorie to Pat, and we who have seen Sean’s yearning know just how thirsty it is.) But McPherson does best with the comic characters, who revel in their gooniness. When he puts them all together in the kitchen and lets them have at it, it becomes a hilarious worst-case scenario of all the people you should never invite over.

Eric Simonson, the director, understandably had some problems in pulling these elements together. The set, by Voeske-Borski Design, fits the manic characters but not the family: it conveys a highly skewed reality, with an exaggerated forced perspective, a raked stage, and a large, pink flower looming over it all. The costumes, by Lynn Sandberg, are more firmly rooted in reality; only characters’ accessories (such as a turban or weird glasses) suggest they may be slightly crazed.

The actors too seem to hover on the edge, some remaining almost completely in an everyday reality, others shooting over the line to become larger-than-life cartoons. With a few exceptions, however, Simonson has managed to keep them all within range of each other, creating a circus of characters with whom the more realistically portrayed family must try to connect.

Lee Guthrie is a beautifully down-to-earth Pat O’Neill. She is always charming and humorous, whether she’s struggling to keep herself together, or throwing food all over the floor in a fit of frustration. And Nancy Lollar as Gertrude, the grandmother, is a good match for Guthrie: you can easily see the life that the two of them have made together. Lollar is tough but has the proverbial heart of gold, a no-bullshit lady with a genuine love for her family.

Lynch as Marjorie, the overly helpful neighbor, sometimes pushes her character a bit beyond the edge. She becomes cartoonish, which can be jarring when she interacts with the family — but that’s only sometimes. Most of the time she walks a tightrope between the two styles beautifully, exuding an annoying self-righteousness, but enough charm to be lovable.

In fact, most of the cast is admirable, giving us ample opportunities to laugh and shudder at the same time, drawing on our knowledge of the people in our own lives like those onstage.

Swartz, however, as Sean O’Neill is just a little too earnest: everything is a crisis. His character, as written and played, is the black cloud hovering over the house, insistent on bringing everyone to his perception of reality. And Meryl Friedman, as Arlene Beckner, the psychotic and asthmatic neighbor, pushes her character beyond credible limits. A complete caricature, she seems to have stepped out of another play as she gasps and shrieks about the stage.

Til the Fat Lady Sings, though clearly a playwright’s early work, shows promise. It simply has the wrong protagonist.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Suzanne N. Plunkett.