By Sarah Downs
In her play, ‘Til Death, Elizabeth Coplan examines the less attractive aspects of death – less attractive in that as we watch a loved one reach the end of his or her life, feelings we would prefer to remain hidden inexorably rise to the surface. Antagonism and greed can override compassion in an instant. Compounded by the issue of a loved one expressing a desire to choose to take control of the process, the turmoil can reach next level dissonance. Coplan makes a worthy effort to explore this difficult subject, but alas the play falls short of the mark. ‘Til Death offers a series of detached scenes of inexplicable provenance, not a complete work.
The cast demonstrate what a group of quality actors can do to stretch an idea beyond its tracery. They elevate the material, trying to illuminate that which stubbornly remains in shadow. In brief: Mary (the lovely Judy Kaye) has been ill. It becomes evident that she may not survive her latest bout with cancer. Her devoted (second) husband (a sure-footed Robert Cuccioli) stays by her side, doing all that he can to ease her discomfort, telling silly Dad jokes and attempting to smooth the tension among Mary’s fractious children, Lucy, Annie and Jason: Lucy a bull in a china shop. Annie a seemingly fragile, sheltered daughter, and overly generous Jason, desperate to prove his worth (and self worth) by emphasizing his net worth.
Kaye is, as always, fresh and vibrant as the stricken mother attempting to calm turbulent family waters as she faces her final days. All Mary wants is to leave this world in peace. As her loving husband, Cuccioli brings the warmth of his mellifluous, baritone speaking voice and reassuring masculinity to a character who has been given little to do. Central to the action yet not central to the narrative, Michael hovers powerlessly at the periphery.
As the perennially argumentative Lucy, Amy Hargreaves has the juiciest role, and she makes the most of it. She leans into all of Lucy’s flaws, managing to make some sense of her character despite the emotional gymnastics required to bridge the gaps between cause and effect. Lucy and her sister Annie (Whitney Morse) have a somewhat difficult relationship, as they are so different. Lucy is rough where Annie is smooth. Morse possesses a lovely stillness that holds your attention, conveying Annie’s confusion and her contradictory sense of self, despite the fact that her family is convinced she is incapable of taking care of herself. We never learn why.
In the thankless role of their brother Jason, Dominick Laruffa Jr. is given almost nothing to work with. First he is bombastic. Then he is furious. As the youngest member of the family, Lucy’s son Nick, Michael Lee Brown brings refreshing clarity and openness to the fray. His breezy simplicity and sweetness toward his grandmother feels authentic – but is it?
This general sense of being unmoored prevails throughout. All of the characters are underdrawn, and any emotional content has to be fabricated by an Herculean effort on the part of the actors, as the script gives them little to work with. Much of the action must be inferred, as it either does not exist or takes place offstage. The latter is a device that can be used to great effect, but not in an environment devoid of context. Chad Austin does his best to direct the actors over the textual lacunae, but there is only so much he can do. Austin strikes a blow for continuity in flowing linear movement and evocative tableaux, including an affecting final pietà.
It is not a great sign when the set is more lucid than the text, but in this case it is the production design that comes to the play’s rescue, particularly Lisa Renkel‘s projections. Flashing across the impervious, moribund gray stone of Mary and Michael’s ultra modern home, these images play up the rough with the smooth. The soul’s stoicism facing life’s cruel epehemera. All those smiling faces. Some photographs appear as contact sheets, where the same image repeats itself, with subtle differences. In places, handwritten notes in red wax pencil appear indicating which image, which memory, to retain. Here is where we comprehend the role of choice in all things.
I wish the play lived up to its goal of capturing the essence of grief – the will to live and the powerlessness of the living over the inevitable hand of fate. Alas, ‘Til Death fails to deliver. For all the talk of death, it is the writing that remains lifeless.
‘Til Death, by Elizabeth Coplan, directed by Chad Austin. With Judy Kaye, Robert Cuccioli, Michael Lee Brown, Whitney Morse, Dominick LaRuffa Jr., and Amy Hargreaves. Dawn Chiang (lighting design), Teresa L. Williams (scenic design), Lisa Renkel (projection design), Antonio Consuegra (costume design), Nicole Emmons (prop design), and Jesse Starr (sound design).
Presented by the Abingdon Theatre, in Theatre 5 at Theatre Row (410 West 42nd St.), November 30 through December 23. For tickets go to www.abindgontheatre.org. Run time 75 minutes, with no intermission