By Stanford Friedman
Within the ecosystem of theater, the minnow of the food chain is surely the Off-Off-Broadway solo show with a two week run downtown, especially one that offers a melancholy meditation on loss at the height of the holiday season. So, for those seeking what is perhaps the exact emotional opposite of Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show, Judy Frank can currently be found at The Cherry Lane Theatre performing Notes to Wherever, a loving and dignified homage to her late husband, the actor Mike Mearian.
Dignity, though, is not theatricality and Ms. Frank, a working actor for over 50 years, falls prey to her own prose. Choosing to believe that her husband is “away,” rather than “gone,” she speaks to him directly, recalling their past and catching him up on what he’s been missing, including his memorial. The Players Club and The Lambs Club are name checked, setting the tone for this couple who were also long-time board members of The Actors Fund (which is receiving the proceeds from this production). She sees him clearly, but we do not. We learn his resume, but are offered little proof of the sharp wit we are told he possessed. With no physical description, nor photo of Mike to be had, mental images are hard to come by. But the largest problem is one that is hinted at in the title. By “notes,” Ms. Frank actually means sheaths, several paper clipped bundles from which she reads nearly every word. As a result, her eyes are glued to the pages for most of the performance, distancing us from her emotions. If her visual acuity is impressive, the decision to spend so much time looking down is nearsighted.
Twice during the show’s 90 minutes we get to stop watching her read. The first pause is for a lengthy audio recording of a friend delivering a eulogy so, here, we get to watch her listen. The second comes toward play’s end when she recites the anniversary card message from Mike which was the inspiration behind her script, “In 1969 I said I love you and in 2006 I’ll say it again, and I’ll never stop as long as we’re here. Then I’ll say it from wherever.” Delivering these words directly to the house, it is no coincidence that it is also the most moving scene of the night, for both actor and audience. There is also one charmingly humorous moment when she turns her attention to herself in describing how she disposed of the gun that Mike owned. It involves several calls to the police as well as channeling her past appearance as a judge in Law & Order.
Director Kathryn Markey stages the work with precision, giving her actor two different chairs to work from and a set of tasks, like making tea, to add much needed movement. One just wishes that she could have helped Ms. Frank build some tension or at least provide a hint of not keeping things together in the face of tragic loss. But instead, all is calm, all is quiet.
Notes to Wherever – Written and performed by Judy Frank; Directed by Kathryn Markey.
Lighting design by David Maria d’Olmpio; Kellie McMenemon, stage manager. The Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce St., 866-811-4111, http://www.cherrylanetheatre.org/onstage/notes-to-wherever/. Through December 22. Running time: 90 minutes