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REVIEW: Wake

The Purple Rose Theatre Company

Life, death and love: TLC at the PRTC

By Donald V. Calamia

Theaters risk low ticket sales and iffy reviews any time they produce a brand new play written by a first time or an up-and-coming playwright – especially in a decaying economy that seems to demand mostly safe and familiar comedies. So when one of Michigan's major theaters defies the odds and produces a world premiere – especially one with such an unusual setting and subject matter – theatergoers should, at the very least, take notice. And if those same theatergoers are looking for a smart script, a heartfelt story and some fine performances, then they should head to Chelsea this summer for Wake by Carey Crim at The Purple Rose Theatre Company.

Directed by Guy Sanville, Wake is the story of Molly Harrison (played by Michelle Mountain), a second generation mortician with a knack for death, but not for living. Suffering with agoraphobia since the strange, accidental death of her husband, Peter (Alex Leydenfrost), three years earlier, Molly is unable to leave the house (or prepare an edible meal from scratch). She’s faced with a crisis on her 45th birthday when her mother, Ivy (Sandy Ryder), gives her two plane tickets to Russia for her and her daughter, Samantha (Stacie Hadgikosti). Complicating matters are the arrival of Joe (Bill Simmons), the handsome son of a recently departed customer at Harrison's Funeral Home to whom she’s instantly and strangely attracted; Sam's decision to attend public school rather than continue home schooling; and the ghost of Peter, who pops in every now and then. "You're my everything," Molly tells her ethereal mate. But when life hits a sudden series of road bumps, will Molly finally be able to shed her fears – and her dead husband?

Wake is playwright Crim's second script to have its world premiere at The Purple Rose, which puts her in a very small, exclusive group that includes Jeff Daniels, Lanford Wilson, Mitch Albom and Kim Carney. And it's easy to see why, given her impressive growth as a playwright since last year's Growing Pretty.

Crim excels in crafting well-defined characters who, despite their quirks, can be found in households all across America. Plus, her dialogue sparkles with truth and insight. "He thinks we're normal," a stunned Sam says about Joe after he experiences a "typical" encounter with her family. And, for the most part, they are – which is why the opening night audience sat mesmerized by their dilemma.

The script isn't without flaws, however. One otherwise splendid scene early in the second act takes a sudden, somewhat illogical turn and leaves the audience hanging – and is never referred to again. (It does nothing to forward the story, but instead serves as a red-herring that confuses the audience.) Another is an otherwise tender moment between Peter and Sam – which, based on earlier dialogue, couldn't possibly happen. (Only Molly is supposedly able to see and interact with her dead husband.) And finally, why Sam steals – and then wears – one item from each of the dead bodies at the funeral home isn't clear (unless I missed it – which, quite frankly, is possible, since the actors occasionally failed to let audience reactions crest before continuing with their dialogue).

Staging by Sanville, now a veteran of 23 PRTC world premieres, is crisp and clean. Most notable, though, is his reverential treatment of the dead in the play. (Remember, the story unfolds primarily in a funeral home!)

Performances are all first-rate. But most impressive are Hadgikosti and Mountain.

Hadgikosti's physical reactions and responses are often priceless, and she's quite believable as a moody 15-year-old.

Mountain, however, plumbs the deep, emotional depths of her character, the result of which is a finely nuanced performance that offers the audience great insight into her character's every thought and feeling.

All of the show's technical elements are up to the PRTC's usually high standards, especially Vincent Mountain's deceptively simple set that serves the multiple requirements of the show quite well. (The design requires a minimal need to move things in, out and around the stage, despite their change in use.) He is aided and abetted by Reid G. Johnson's smooth, mood-setting lights.

And one can't help but notice that Christianne Myers dressed Juan in the most interesting costumes of anyone in the cast. Who is Juan? For the answer, you'll have to go and find out for yourself!


SHOW DETAILS:

The Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St., Chelsea. Wednesday - Sunday through Aug. 29. Tickets: $25-$38. For information: 734-433-7673 or www.purplerosetheatre.org.

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THERE'S MORE!! Click here to read an interview with playwright Carey Crim.


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