October 24, 2010 in City

Theater review: Shining moments in a too-long play

By The Spokesman-Review
Jesse Tinsley photo

From left, Susan Hardie, Mary Starkey and Melody Deatherage rehearse a scene from “The Cemetery Club” on Monday. The Civic Theatre production runs through Nov. 14.
(Full-size photo)


“The Cemetery Club,” Spokane Civic Theatre’s Firth Chew Studio Theatre, Friday night.

Ivan Menchell’s “The Cemetery Club” is not the kind of play I am inclined to favor, and I’ll give you a few reasons why:

• The characters hold lengthy conversations with their husbands’ gravestones.

• It’s the stereotypical “laughter through the tears” dramedy.

• It has the typical banter and insult-humor of a standard TV sitcom.

Yet despite all of this, I found myself enjoying this Firth Chew Studio Theatre production far more than I expected, mostly because I couldn’t get enough of Susan Hardie as the brazen 50-something widow Lucille.

Actually, director Heather McHenry-Kroetch has assembled a solid cast of Spokane veteran actresses – the show’s other two widows are played ably by Mary Starkey and Melody Deatherage – but I was simply bowled over by Hardie from her first scene onward.

She marched in with a perfect Jewish-matron-from- Queens accent, a spectacular wardrobe of furs and leopard spots, and an impressive display of cougar-cleavage. She proceeds to provide a vital spark of sass in this otherwise sad-sack “cemetery club” of grieving widows.

Hardie nailed my favorite scene in the play, a pitch-perfect moment when the three widows are attempting to hold a moment of silence in front of the gravestone of Doris’ husband. An eligible 50-something man (Sam, played by Thomas Heppler) has joined the three widows. Lucille simply can’t contain herself. She squirms. She casts moony eyes at Sam. Flirtatious words are bubbling inside her, desperate to come out – and then they do.

So much for that moment of silence.

Her friends shush her – and then she repeats the performance again and again. It’s a wonderful balance of tension and comedy, well-staged by McHenry-Kroetch and performed with inspired timing by Hardie.

Of course, as “the promiscuous one,” Lucille will inevitably have to reveal herself to be, well, the opposite. That’s Menchell’s predictable formula of “surprise” revelations. But that’s not Hardie’s fault. Hardie makes even the inevitable “surprise” dramatic and moving. She delivers the scene with a cutting edge.

Starkey and Deatherage don’t get to have as much fun with their characters, although both have many funny – and yes, touching – moments as they work through their grief and their guilt over their lost husbands and their fraught relationships with each other. Starkey was especially vulnerable and endearing.

I would be dishonest if I said that “The Cemetery Club” didn’t move me at times. It contains some wise lessons about why we need to honor those who are gone – but also why we need to let go of them.

Yet this play is nowhere near as effective as “Steel Magnolias,” to which it is often compared. For one thing, very little happens in “The Cemetery Club.” The women argue, Sam comes into their life, and they argue some more.

And the whole thing rambles on far too long. I couldn’t help but notice that this play lasts longer than the full-blown musical the Civic was doing upstairs the same night.

I’ll tell you the first thing I’d cut: the entire scene where the women take turns telling maudlin stories about the first time they met their husbands.

Maybe the director could have moved things along faster, but not much. The play is, quite simply, too long for the amount of incident it contains.

Still, this kind of play is popular with theatergoers for a good reason. It can help us to think through our own relationships and our own situations. And what are our lives, if not laughter-through-the- tears dramedies?

The play continues through Nov. 14. Call (509) 325-2507 for tickets.

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