House of Coffins

When the time comes to pay final respects to a loved one, we're usually compelled to talk about our loss--which means that in order for the cathartic experience to be complete, someone must listen to what we say. That's the essential concept underlying Jeffrey Hatcher's Three Viewings, a collection of three distinct monologues set in a funeral parlor in a small Midwestern town. Currently on stage at the Aurora Fox Theatre, the intriguing play features three solid portrayals by a trio of local actors. And although the ninety-minute show would benefit from being housed in more intimate confines, director Terry Dodd's amusing and poignant production manages to communicate our longing to defy mortality by sustaining the emotional ties that bind us.

The first segment, "Tell-Tale," begins as a middle-aged funeral director, Emil (John Mandes), perches on a seat in a remote corner of a somber viewing room. Strolling amid several flower arrangements, Emil eventually makes his way down to a settee, where he tells us about his feelings for Nettie James, an older woman with whom he's secretly in love. The grave-digging Walter Mitty type describes various people who have passed through his place of business over the years and muses whether Nettie will ever respond to his humble overtures. He refers to the local minister, for instance, as the "Reverend Doctor insert deceased name here" even as he confesses his fear that divulging his feelings to Nettie might earn him "a howl of derision followed by twenty years of averted glances." Eventually, Emil is forced to face the music in an unexpected way. Alternately beaming with unbridled joy and paralyzed by small-town angst, Mandes renders a charming portrait of the man who's never been happier than on the day Nettie tells him she hates him--for at least she has finally spoken to him. Although Mandes doesn't always tie his character's tidbits and anecdotes into a sweeping, lyrical whole, his meek devotion and hopeful tenderness win our hearts by monologue's end.

After a brief blackout, we're quickly introduced to Mac (Catherine DiBella), a hardened California wild child--"I've been stealing jewelry off corpses for years" is one of her first lines in "The Thief of Tears"--who's returned to her hometown to attend her grandmother's memorial service. Clad in a stretched-thin black top that reveals her hot-pink brassiere, the tart-tongued Mac takes up a defiant pose and tells us that the real reason she's come back is to claim a favorite ring that's been on her grandmother's finger for years. She's concerned, however, about breaking the dead woman's digit, confiding to us that "it's an occupational hazard, and I don't want my grandmother to be my first snapper." Soon we learn the true reasons behind Mac's mercenary outlook: "I have not come for the money," she says quietly. "I have come for something else." And like a proverbial thief in the night, Mac makes her peace with a fallen matriarch who can no longer defend or explain her actions in life. In one of her more impressive efforts, the talented DiBella imbues her sterling portrayal with a depth of conviction and maturity of understanding that earn both generous laughter and hushed sympathy from theatergoers.

Following another brief interlude (in a nice directorial touch, the bouquets of flowers are changed during each interval), we meet Virginia (Judy Phelan-Hill), a droll golden girl whose husband recently passed away. As is the case with many housewives who are suddenly forced to face life on their own, Virginia discovers to her horror that she knows absolutely nothing about the family finances--or her mate's shady business dealings. In fact, as she tells us in "Thirteen Things About Ed Carpolotti," she now owes "three times more money" than she ever thought she had. Maintaining a sense of humor in the face of such disaster, Virginia, who takes up residence on a love seat for the duration of her monologue, jokes about how Ed's many hairpieces will now watch her every move and remarks that she's beginning to understand her husband's "sin of failure." In due time, Virginia reads us a letter that Ed wrote to her while he was lying in his hospital bed--and his revelations end the playlet with an interesting twist. Effectively expanding upon her colleagues' earlier endeavors, veteran actress Phelan-Hill crafts a subtly shaded portrait that's remarkable for its rich humanity and buttery-smooth delivery. It also serves as a fitting capstone on Dodd's carefully constructed memorial to the peculiar and ultimate transactions of the soul.

--Lillie

Three Viewings, through March 20 at the Aurora Fox Theatre, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, 303-361-2910.

 
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