Encore Michigan

Comedy hits the right notes (with a little help from Mama Cass)

Review May 25, 2013 Martin F. Kohn

Night after night a woman camps out in a hospital waiting room, easing her mind with coffee and television, stretching high to reach the volume control or change the channel. Night after night in the hallway behind her the same man comes and goes, getting on or off the elevator. Eventually they’re going to have to say something to each other, because life without connection is no life at all. And sometimes you have to stretch, and sometimes you have to stop stretching.

The meeting between Kathryn (Sandra Birch) and John (John Lepard) occurs quickly in “10:53,” Michigan playwright Annie Martin’s engaging comedy receiving its world premiere at Williamston Theatre. Kathryn stations herself in the waiting area to avoid the hospital room where her husband is dying. The reason for John’s nightly visits will be revealed later and explains the play’s title.

“10:53” is nowhere as predictable as this setup makes it sound, and two additional characters enrich the proceedings: Kathryn’s daughter Zoe (Zachera Wollenberg), home from college, and Zoe’s girlfriend – Kathryn was expecting a boyfriend – Chris (Julia Garlotte).

Amid much genuinely funny dialogue about such topics as the joys of lousy TV shows and how daunting routine activities like mowing the lawn or maintaining a retirement account can be when the spouse who’s been doing it no longer can, Birch and Lepard supply splendid give-and-take. They are two pained souls with similar wry perspectives on life, she high-strung, he laid back but adrift in his own anguish.

Wollenberg and Garlotte are credible as Zoe and Chris, the less meticulously drawn college kids who may be in love but not necessarily forever. Although Zoe and Chris are there mostly to get Kathryn and John to talk more, Martin has given Chris what seems to be the play’s thematic statement. Lobbying for commitment from Zoe, she says “Let’s be scared together.”

Occasionally the dialogue veers into murky waters – a metaphysical disquisition on death and premonitions, a mother-daughter conversation that goes right for the analytical with barely a hello – but overall “10:53” is touching when it wants to be touching and funny when it wants to be funny and there’s not much more you can ask of a play.

Speaking of touching, director Tony Caselli has his actors inject just the right amount of physical contact in their interactions. And they make good use of the couch that is the main set piece, sitting lying, tussling and what have you.

The skilled hands of lighting designer Daniel C. Walker, sound designer Michelle Raymond and scenic designer Bartley H. Bauer are evident everywhere – from the convincing light and sound emanating from the imagined TV set to the stunningly believable elevator with its silently sliding doors and seemingly solid interior.

Not that the play needs excessive deciphering, but the songs between scenes come from the recorded oeuvre of Mama Cass Elliot, and the show’s Rosetta stone, played at the curtain call, is a song called “Don’t Let the Good Life Pass You By.” If that’s not enough of a clue, its final verse hits the play’s key points: “Did you ever see the funny side of losing?/ Did you ever sit right down and have a cry?/ Did you ever take the time to help a neighbor?/ Just don’t let the good life pass you by.”

Somewhere Mama Cass is smiling.

Week of 9/19/2022

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