The Funeral Director's Wife
nytheatre.com review by David Johnston
June 10, 2009
The small town has long been the stuff of American drama and literature—think Thornton Wilder, Edgar Lee Masters, Sherwood Anderson, William Inge. Rural lives can be mined for hilarity, poignancy, drama, you name it. In The Funeral Director's Wife, currently running at the Richmond Shepard Theatre, co-authors Beth Gilleland and Kathleen Douglass examine small town life in present day rural Iowa. A young lady, Dee, marries a funeral director, Joseph, and moves to the town of Fertile. (Her mother also points out to her that since his last name is Cease, she will now be named Dee Cease.)
Dee is stunned and perplexed by the inhabitants of her new home. She chafes at its insularity and the obligations that come with her new position. Eventually, the marriage fails due to her inability to adapt, and her husband's unwillingness to devote any time. A procession of the town's inhabitants wanders through the evening. Some of their stories are amusing, some are mordant. While not without its moments, The Funeral Director's Wife is a rather aimless hour and a half of anecdotes, music, and shreds of conversations, but never coalesces into a satisfying theatrical experience.
There's a sameness of rhythm to the night. Quick scenes are followed by a joke, followed by another monologue by Dee expressing her frustrations with Fertile, followed by a quick appearance by another colorful local (usually played with verve by Lisa Margolin), and then a song. But a string of stories and jokes do not a play make. There's a lot of music in the show, and while the cast have pleasant enough voices, it serves no real purpose other than to delineate scene changes. Instead of a lighting cue, they sing. The actors all determinedly deliver their lines, but no amount of energy or commitment can disguise the fact that there's no play here. There's no conflict in The Funeral Director's Wife, and precious little action. Most maddening, the co-writers have a tendency to cut a scene short just when something interesting is about to happen.
The staging by Richmond Shepard moves briskly and makes use of the limited space without apology or trickery. In the title role, Anais Alexandra is lovely but does little to overcome the flatness of the material. The character unfortunately has a one-note sameness—she's just vaguely disappointed all the time—and the actress seems to lack technical resources to compensate for the script's shortcomings. Paul Geiger is pleasant as Joseph—a pleasant character—but again is not able to plumb any depths, since the writers haven't given him any. Lisa Margolin and Sam Platizky gamely go at it as everyone else in Fertile, but are often hamstrung with random bits of dialogue and action, like one character who yells "Oofta!" whenever she leaves the stage.
The Funeral Director's Wife is a frustrating night. These characters have a richness which comes from being drawn from life. They deserve better treatment.