Colder Than Here
nytheatre.com review by Stan Richardson
September 27, 2005
A dying woman planning her own funeral amidst a family motionless with shock and grief—the premise of British playwright Laura Wade’s Colder Than Here—is not exactly unmined dramatic territory. But Wade has kept the tone light and gentle, drawn an appealing bunch of characters, and has been rewarded with a terrific production at MCC Theater, under the direction of Abigail Morris.
We first encounter Myra picnicking in a cemetery with her formerly bulimic and heavily mascara’ed daughter Jenna, who seems too distracted by her current dead-end romance to wholeheartedly embrace this particular episode of “Let’s Find the Perfect Funeral Plot.” In fact, as much as her mother chirps about the practical aspects of her own death (from bone cancer) and warns her daughter that she needs to be prepared, Jenna only responds with bewildered defensiveness.
Alec, Myra’s husband, has a different manner entirely. When asked by Harriet, their much more put-together daughter, how he can read the paper when Mum is sitting on the couch across from him with mere months to live, he quips, “A watched pot never boils.” Myra breaks into bright laughter. Unsurprisingly, Alec’s brusque behavior belies a sappy core; he is not necessarily cold, just involuntarily chilly—much like their flat, whose state-of-the-art heater keep breaking down. (This particular metaphor gets quite a bit of stage time, the least compelling instance of which is the five minute one-sided telephone conversation that Alec has with the local repairman. It’s theatrically uninteresting and hardly worth the not-unexpected character revelations that emerge in this “conversation-about-something-else.”)
Still, under Morris’s direction, the play shines. Her designers—Jeff Cowie (set), Candice Donnelly (costumes), Michael Chybowski (lights), John Leonard (sound), and Brian H. Kim (projection)—all deserve heaps of praise. (I must single out Donnelly’s transformation of Jenna from angsty to affable, and Kim’s giddy design of Myra’s PowerPoint presentation concerning the arrangements for her own funeral.)
Judith Light’s portrayal of Myra is such that the thought of her being taken from this world is very sad indeed. Her Myra is pragmatic and brave without being steely or self-righteous; her warmth is unobtrusive but undeniably felt. Brian Murray softens the acerbic Alec without sacrificing the wit—his near-undetectable jolt when his daughter Jenna touches his shoulder says it all. Harriet, the golden daughter (owns a house with her husband with whom she has a gentle relationship), is the sketchiest of Wade’s characters, but Sarah Paulson resists a predictably austere and puritanical characterization: hers is a young woman who always chooses what is obviously sensible and genuinely cannot understand why other people (read: her sister) cannot do the same.
That sister, Jenna—as masterfully portrayed by Lily Rabe—is the broken-but-beating heart of this play. In the beginning, she, of the trio to be left behind, will clearly be most at-sea when Myra passes away. And she knows it. Surveying the burial ground her mother proposes, her expression is one of a bludgeoned owl. But through the course of the play’s hour and forty minutes (of which her character occupies a majority), we see her terror erode, and an eerie but welcome calm takes its place. She is, I think, the most universal model of grieving presented here. Just watching her makes us feel like things will ultimately be okay.