Encore Michigan

Sisterhood of the Traveling Chardonnay comes to Yellow Barn

Review August 14, 2016 Jenn McKee

ANN ARBOR, Mich.–Judi Schram’s What Am I Doing Here? now being staged at Ann Arbor’s Yellow Barn in a joint production of Theatre Nova and Papa Weez, starts with four mature, dressed-in-black women entering the stage holding full wine glasses, plus a bottle for refills during the show.

And just like that, as each actress took a seat in an armchair, I felt cozy and comfortable in the company of ladies I already liked.

Drawn from material published on Schram’s blog, “What Am I Doing Here?” is a reader’s theater show – with the actresses reading from scripts – that takes various aspects of aging as its subject.

Broken up into chapters like “Memory,” “Doctors,” “Technology,” and more, the 75 minute show is built on Schram’s lighthearted poems, written in the style and spirit of Shel Silverstein’s work (as she openly acknowledges early on). Dieting, Spanx, not recognizing yourself in the mirror, absent-mindedness, hot flashes, mammograms, taking care of children and aging parents simultaneously, HGTV binge-watching, and prescriptions are among the topics tackled, and projected illustrations from Schram’s book “Lights Out in the Attic” (another nod to Silverstein) provide the show’s visual backdrop.

A problem inevitably arises, though, when the poems, which share a common structure and tone, start to feel redundant. Yes, they address different subjects, but as each builds toward a kind of punchline, you can’t help but yearn for more variety and bite.

That said, the show’s four actresses – Nancy Cooper, Maggie Gilkes, Maureen Mansfield, and Maryann Tweedie – deliver the material with winning, sisterly charm, occasionally ad-libbing for laughs. On opening night, for example, as one performer read a poem that pondered the idea of attaching her oft-forgotten keys to a mitten clip, another actress drily interjected, “Oh, that would look good.”

These sparks of spontaneity provide the show with additional warmth, energy, and the scaffolding of female friendship. As these four women commiserate with each other, sharing war stories in the nurturing, teasing way that girlfriends do, they invite us in – and the invitation is hard to pass up.

Cooper acts as the show’s narrator, and for one poem about yoga, she leaves her armchair and executes the appropriate poses to comedic affect (and offers a refreshing visual change-up). She also delivers the play’s opening and closing monologues about being a Baby Boomer with appealing openness and goodwill.

So, “What Am I Doing Here?” directors Emily Pierce and Barbie Weisserman make some solid choices about how to make this reader’s theater show theatrical and enticing. And Schram’s play is pleasant enough “ladies’ night out” fare; but it ultimately lacks narrative urgency – a sense that this story must be told.

Because while lightheartedness has its charms and its place, too much of it begins to feel like a writer’s dodge to avoid a deeper, far riskier dive.

Click here for show days, times and details.