Encore Michigan, June 19, 2017
By: David Kiley
COLDWATER, Mich.–There is a whole genre of plays designed to give meaty roles to women who are past their ingenue age. It’s a much-needed genre as it more accurately reflects life. One of the best examples of the genre is “Steel Magnolias,” but the play showing at Tibbits Opera House is also a solid entry—The Cemetery Club by Ivan Menchell.
Released in the early 1990s, it focuses on three Jewish women whose husbands have died. Each month they get together and visit the cemetery together. Now, they’re having some disagreements about when and how it is appropriate to move on. On one side is Lucille (Gloria Logan) who is convinced it is time to play the field and date as much as possible. On the other side is Doris (Joylene Taylor) who, after four years since her husband’s death, believes in eternal faithfulness and a life centered around paying tribute to her husband’s memory. In the middle is Ida (Debbie Culver) who is just getting ready to start letting another man into her life.
The three women have excellent chemistry and it is easy to see why, despite their differences, they have been friends for decades and rely on each other. They also, without breaking the fourth wall, develop an early and easy rapport with the audience.
Culver captures well the uncertainty and nervousness of her character. Ida is clearly the level-headed one in their trio and the one who is experienced at keeping the peace. Culver is especially effective in her scenes with Sam (Alan Elliot). She displays the nervousness of someone who isn’t sure whether she is ready to take this step, but is determined to try. There are many subtleties to Ida’s character, and Culver does a good job of playing them and making her a highly relatable character.
Logan sets up the audience—playing Lucille for laughs and to a type—only to later reveal her very sensitive and vulnerable side. The choices she makes sets the audience up well and brings great credibility to a role that could easily be a caricature.
Taylor plays a character who is single-minded in her devotion to her dead husband. Her life is centered around caring for his plot and remembering the marriage she had. She’s very good at deflecting the conversation away from where her character doesn’t want it to go and manages the awkward moments well.
Elliot is the sole man in the cast and he is a good match for Culver. Their scenes are endearing and it is where Menchell excels the most in his writing. They share the difficulties of moving on in a very realistic way.
Rounding out the cast is Diane Long as Mildred. She makes a brief appearance but does well at playing the outsider and the catalyst of change for both Sam and Ida.
Jeremy Littlejohn directs this show and is most effective when he gets out of the way of the three women and lets them do their thing. While the show lasts two and a half hours, it doesn’t feel overlong and only a few moments are awkward, mostly due to some minor fumbles on the actors’ part. The casting works well and Littlejohn keeps his actors moving on the large set.
Speaking of the set, Frank Blackmore’s creation is a work of beauty. It is both practical and symbolic and makes the stage look even larger than it is. His use of dimensions and depth add a lot to the presentation of Ida’s home where nearly all the action takes place. The gravestones of the cemetery are brought front and center and are a constant visual reminder of what the women are all obsessed with. The top of the set has a delicious presentation of branches which both set the season and provide metaphorical visions of the show’s themes.
There are some things that make this play problematical, especially to a modern audience. The women are supposed to be in their mid to late 50s. Thankfully, Littlejohn plays them older than that. Some of the sight gags barely work for people in their 70s—why shouldn’t a woman of any age where a satiny pink dress with bows? For someone in their 50s, it is offensive. It is also awfully young to buy into the idea that all three of them are widows at that age.
Perhaps worse for some audience members, especially women, is that these three widows are fully and almost entirely defined in the script by their relationship to a man. None of them have motivations other than ones generated from relationships with either their dead husbands or their potential new partners. Fulfillment is seen only in what their relationship to a man is. This makes this show far more dated than it should be for being less than 30 years old. It’s especially problematic because these women have such a strong friendship between the three of them—why don’t they draw more fulfillment and motivation from their friendships with each other?
That said, it does well at asking the questions associated with moving on after the death of a life partner—of someone who has been present in your life for decades and is suddenly gone. It is most effective when it examines the difficulties of reinventing your life and reaching out to new people.
Tibbits Opera House’s selection of The Cemetery Club resonated with its audience on opening weekend, with attendees vocal in their observations of the characters’ choices. The ensemble handles the humor of the show well while keeping it realistic and touching.