I mention these personal anecdotes because they are the kind of things Lee Garrow’s charming production of “The Cemetery Club” made me ponder. Although Ivan Menchell’s durable play is a comedy, it’s also sad, gentle and probing on how hard it is to let go of the one’s we’ve loved and lost.
The play centers around three women, Ida (played by Lina Aiko Krueger), Lucille (played by Kristi Scott) and Doris (played by Sandra Bowes), who have maintained a friendship for many years. Their husbands have all passed away and the trio make frequent visits to the cemetery, a demonstration of respect and mutual obligation. When Sam (played by Francis Taua), a butcher who takes interest in Ida, enters their lives, the dynamic of the three unattached, independent-minded friends is shaken. Further complicating matters is the arrival of the chipper but unwelcome Mildred (nicely played by Anne Jenny).
How good are these actresses? Their delivery is so unforced and natural, I felt like I was in their good company and a part of the conversation. Krueger is wonderful, making Ida utterly relatable and touching. Scott has the most showy role but she avoids making Lucille a caricature and skillfully conveys her character’s hidden layers. Bowes makes Doris an endearing figure and has some of the play’s sharpest moments. The three lead performances are, by turns, subtle and flamboyant when necessary but always movingly real. Taua is unrecognizable as Sam, vanishing into his delightful character and crafting a quiet man who finds the inner will to embrace romance and second chances. I’m a fan of Taua’s always-versatile work and Sam is one of my favorite of his stage creations.
Although Menchell’s play is full of snappy one-liners (and the occasional sitcom-y retort), it has surprising interludes where the jokes stop and complex truths are revealed. There’s a lengthy sequence in which a post-wedding celebration becomes a late night confession. The work of everyone on stage is remarkable, as an initially funny, jovial occasion becomes a painful declaration of truth. There’s also a delicate, believable sequence in which Ida and Sam bond while alone together for the first time. Krueger and Taua are so funny and sweet, as their awkward silence builds to a recognition of attraction, they make this key moment a master class of acting.
The scenes set in a cemetery pose a problem, as they are performed in front of a clunky black curtain. While these sequences are as well acted as every other scene here, they are so spare (in sharp contrast to the exquisite living room set), it gave me a jarring reminder that I was watching a play. While the black curtain makes sense thematically, these moments lack the intimate, seemingly organic, you-are-there feel of the other scenes.
Menchell’s play was first produced on Broadway in 1990 and, like Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosensweig” two years later, is a shining depiction of three Jewish women and their complicated friendships. Blending farce and pathos isn’t easy but Menchell creates a careful balance of tone. There’s a funny variation of the “Who’s On First” routine, as the women casually consider which of their husbands died first. On the other hand, Sam makes the heartbreaking observation that “One day, you’re on your knees proposing, then forty years later, you’re at their gravestone.”
Garrow does what any great director would do when posed with such a character-driven comedy. He clearly has encouraged excellent work from his talented cast, makes the blocking feel genuine and doesn’t douse the play with needless bits of obtrusive stylishness. The power is in Menchell’s words and everyone involved is up to the demands of the material. Garrow’s production is often slap-your-knee hilarious and rowdy but it’s the piercing moments of human fragility and compassion that have stayed with me.
The Cemetery Club opens February 10th and runs at the ProArts Playhouse at the Azeka Shopping Center until February 26th. Tickets can be purchased at www.proartspacific.com or by calling 463-6550.