The Cemetery Club

cemeteryThe Cemetery Club, currently in performance at the South Park Theatre is a charming play about three Jewish women. They are life-long friends who are in their late fifties, live in Brooklyn, and all are recently widowed They meet once a month for tea before they visit their respective husbands’ graves at the local cemetery. While the plot for Ivan Menchell’s 1990 play seems deceptively simple, the story of the three women’s lives and their quest to find happiness is anything but. Each of the women struggles to come to terms with when is the right time to stop the grieving and to move on. Ida (Joyce Miller), hosts the gatherings at her comfortable home. She is a sweet woman with five grandchildren. Her marriage to her husband Murray was good and solid, but now she longs to make dinners again, to be held, to be touched, to get on with her life.

Lucille (Lynne Martin Huber) is the wild party girl who seemingly just wants to have fun. Her marriage to Harry was anything but fun for her because he continued dating other women up until he died. She is out to “play the field†just to show Harry she can.

Doris (Allison Cahill) adored her Abe. On this, the fourth anniversary of his death, she is still deeply in love and totally committed to Abe and the memory of their time together. There will never be another man in Doris’ life. Lucille’s cavalier antics irritate her to no end and she can’t understand Ida’s desire to have someone in her life

Things begin to change on this visit to the cemetery when Sam (Bill Crean) runs into Lucille on his way to his wife’s Merna’s grave. Lucille tries her best to engage him, but Sam doesn’t take the bait. Later, he and Ida hit it off much to the consternation of Lucille and Doris.

If you can get past Menchell’s stereotypical characterizations of the Jewish women (who actually reminded me of several of my Italian “aunties†of a certain age) and some of the jokes that would feel more at home in a sitcom, this is a very bittersweet story. It is not about death, but about finding one’s “life†after the death of their spouse. These women genuinely struggle with what they should and can do, and it almost destroys their friendships.

This play takes a strong director and an experienced ensemble of actors to make up for the script’s shortcomings. Director Allison M. Weakland initially stages this more as a drama and less for its comedic moments, which start to get a bit over-the-top slapstick as the ladies prepare to attend their friend Selma’s umpteenth wedding, all as aged bridesmaids. It is as if the playwright couldn’t decide it The Cemetery Club should be a drama or comedy. (The subsequent film by the same name skews more comedic.)

That being said, this criticism of the play itself should not detract from the performances of the three leading ladies. In some ways, it’s perhaps easier to play to stereotype and these three veteran actresses nail their respective roles. Martin-Huber Lucille is one funny lady, but you can see there is something that motivates her behavior just lurking under the surface. Miller’s effectively conveys Ida’s longing to have someone in her life. Cahill’s Doris is a bit of a prude, but she comes across as a strong woman who can go it alone existing on memories with no problem; thank you, fine. Sam, the humble Butcher, as portrayed by Billy Crean is a nice balance of caring, lonely and bumbling gentleman who tries his best to get it right. Cindy Swanson rounds out the cast as the vivacious Mildred, Sam’s ill-fated wedding date for Selma’s wedding.

Jonathan Sage’s set design has space limitations but serves the purpose. I did wish for some “theatre magic†to have happened to create a different setting for the cemetery scenes. J. Childe Prendergast costumes perfectly align with the characters personas and their ages and the era of the play. Lucille’s expertly captured that “I’m really trying too hard†mid-thirties MILF look. Kudo’s to Sound designer Shannon Knapp’s piano score. Her selections couldn’t be a better match to the story and actually, help mitigate some of the script’s shortcomings.

Don’t pass up the chance to see three very good actresses in this well-directed production of The Cemetery Club at the South Park Theatre. As all good theatre does, it will leave you thinking.

The Cemetery Club runs now through June 9th at the South Park Theatre in South Park. Performances are Thursdays thru Saturdays at 7:30 pm and Sundays at 2:00 pm. Reservations may be made by leaving a message with the box office at 412-831-8552

Thanks to the South Park theatre for the complimentary tickets.

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