How Not to Be a Good Little Widow

05/06/2011 7:00 AM |

Be A Good Little Widow
Written by Bekah Brunstetter
Directed by Stephen Brackett

Craig and his wife Melody (Chad Hoeppner and Wrenn Schmidt) shuffle around their new suburban Connecticut home's living room to Louis Armstrong in Be a Good Little Widow's early moments. A few scenes later grief- and wine-stricken Melody asks her just-dead husband's co-worker Brad (Jonny Orsini), "You wanna dance?" and the pair's drunken grinding to one of DMX's angriest angry songs, hilarious at first, becomes weirdly affecting as the first curse-laden verse continues. Throughout Ars Nova's premiere production of Widow (through May 14), Bekah Brunstetter explores the extremes of grief. It's a search undertaken on generational terms, with Craig's mother Hope's (Jill Eikenberry) coded, muted propriety set against twentysomething Melody's impulsive and uncontrollably emotional process.

Beneath this tension lies the murkier issue of our relationship to mortality, or lack thereof. Hope, whose husband died decades earlier, runs a local widows' league and takes her son's death like a professional mourner. Melody, between sobs, asking whether her black dress is sufficiently black, explains that this will be her first funeral. Schmidt and Eikenberry are excellent together, the one reigning in her performance as the other's expands. Brunstetter textures this evolution within the play's central relationship from awkward antagonism to a strange sort of symbiotic camaraderie, with strong, charged scenes between Brad and Melody. Both are ill-equipped to face Craig's death, but they know enough to want something other than the somber composure Hope practices. Set designer Daniel Zimmerman emphasizes Melody's suburban ennui with a living room and foyer full of isolating door, window and picture frames. By way of escape, she drives to the place where Craig's plane crashed into a house, and the vivid, pungent, grossly sensual scene she describes seems the exact opposite of the sterile domesticity into which she married. She finally accesses death through her senses, from the crash site's burning flesh to the bowls of Craig's favorite candy that she places around the house.

Brunstetter sprinkles some flashbacks and ghostly encounters between Melody and Craig without ever lapsing into outright sentimentality. She portrays alternately reckless and quasi-comatose states of grief with a sensitivity and complexity at once profoundly familiar yet often surprising and funny. In this respect she reminds of Samuel D. Hunter, another young local playwright with a knack for writing depression and loss in funnily honest and revelatory terms. Director Stephen Brackett keeps snappy scenes between the living at a good pace, while Hoeppner and Schmidt's moments are appropriately tinged with awkwardness. Brunstetter shows through bittersweet humor how Melody, pushed to the brink of total erasure by immense loss, finally finds much-needed purpose in her grief. "We're grown ass adults," she tells Brad, "I think. No, I know."

(photo: Ben Arons)