Encore Michigan

‘Be A Good Little Widow’ lights up Open Book with hope

Review November 04, 2017 David Kiley

TRENTON, Mich.–When a play makes you guffaw and weep in the same 90 minute time period, you know the playwright, director and actors have done something right.

In Be A Good Little Widow, at Open Book Theatre here, Melody (Meghan VanArsdalen) and Craig (Joshua Brown) are newlyweds, and he is a busy, ambitious lawyer while she, all of 26, is not working and at home a lot by herself. She seems to be very devoted to Craig, though at times she is not totally sure why she married him. Her widowed Mother-in-Law, Hope (Diane Hill), is nearby, and not loving the idea of Melody, who is now between she and her only son…and only family.

The title of the play allows this detail, so it’s not a spoiler. Craig goes down in a plane crash, thus bonding the two women in their common mourning. There are plenty of laughs before the tragedy–some of which are delivered by Diane Hill’s at-times priceless facial expressions and reactions as the uptight mother-in-law who, among other things, won’t eat the brie Melody has set out because it hasn’t ripened at room temperature long enough.

Melody and Craig have a touch of Barefoot in the Park in the early going. Both have all command of the material, which allows them to come across very real. The dialogue is mostly right-on for the way such people would speak. Joshua Brown’s Craig, despite being an ambitious attorney, also has a goofy endearing side, which comes across very naturally and is no doubt a key piece of what Melody fell for. VanArsdalen communicates her youthful ambivalence toward marriage perfectly, not only with her spoken dialogue but with her body language. Brad (Tim Pollack) is a welcome foil as the law firm clerk with long hair and man-bun who is only banking time at his father’s firm, and seems a bit closer in spirit to Melody than Craig.

Director Adrian Galea has made some choices in this play that take the potential of the play from good to great. She opted for a minimal set–boxes that are arranged as chairs, a couch, etc. by the actors, with actions, such as making an adjustment on a cable box, mimed by the actors. Also, the passage of time is neatly conveyed by the lights (lighting design by Harley Miah) going on and off with actors changing positions before the lights come up again. Sound design is also done extremely well, with the execution of cell-phone calls, TV shows, etc. done effectively. She has kept the focus on the actors delivering mostly terrific dialogue while giving her players a construct and setting that better allows them to just deliver on this universally felt situation –death, guilt and uncertainty in how to cope effectively and appropriately.

Craig, after the crash, makes several more appearances in the acting space as figuring into Melody’s daydreams and thoughts in which she is having conversations with him, just as anyone would while trying to cope with the sudden and premature loss of a beloved. It is an effective device to keep Craig involved while the two women navigate the un-navigable. It is worth noting that while the English language has a word for a husband who has lost his wife (widower) and a word for a wife who has lost a husband (widow), and a child who has lost a parent (orphan), losing a child is so painful and unspeakable for a parent that there is no word for it.

And yet, both the writer and actors keep us toggling between laughs, titters and tears. And this is what makes the story, as rare as plane crashes are, real because anyone who has been to a good wake knows that there is usually some level of humor about the departed shared among the mourners, even of the person is young. It’s a way of coping, deflecting unspeakable grief.

(Advisory: There is a certain amount of profanity and sexual language in this play and may not be appropriate for patrons younger than 16)

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