Pictured: Peggy Friesen and Amy Elizabeth Attaway. Photo by Brian Paulette.
By Abigail Trabue
Kansas City playwright Forest Attaway’s world premiere comedy THE GRAVE is relatable, features plenty of hearty laughs, and while the story is familiar, it’s not cliché — and that’s important. A popular KC Fringe piece, it’s great to see Attaway’s work fleshed out into a full-length play and I can’t think of a more appropriate venue than The Living Room to produce the work.
Set during the summer of 2010, Act 1 introduces us to a post-funeral grave site where Amanda (Peggy Friesen) and Elizabeth (Amy Elizabeth Attaway), who both have ties to the deceased Mitchell, stand face to face for the first time. See, Mitchell left Amanda for the younger Elizabeth, a fact that doesn’t sit too well with Amanda, and now with the help of Mitchell and Amanda’s son Charles (Mathew Ellis), Elizabeth must convince Amanda to help her fulfill the secret dying wish of her husband and Amanda’s ex. It’s a pretty predictable plot point, older man leaves wife for younger woman and younger woman and ex-wife meet and all hell breaks loose, and yet, Forest Attaway finds a way to make it feel fresh, resisting the urge to write both women as predictable stereotypes suffering from broken hearts.
As Amanda, Friesen is all fire and sorrow with comedic timing that goes on for days. She is just the right amount of nasty and Amy Attaway’s Elizabeth is just the right amount of receptive. Attaway portrays a poetry teacher completely in touch with her feelings (and Amanda’s), which plays beautifully against Friesen’s fury over being forced into a situation she wants no part of. Attaway, whose work I have long admired, showers the scene with honest and realistic humor and gives us an Elizabeth impossible to dislike. Friesen and Attaway are especially well paired — watching the two of them on stage together is a joy. I hope it isn’t the last time we see them together.
Peppered throughout Act One is Amanda’s son Charles, who tries his best to navigate these two very strong women, but ultimately, and wisely, realizes he’d do well to just stay in the car. Mathew Ellis is making his Kansas City debut in THE GRAVE, having recently graduated from Kansas State University, and there is a hint of the young actor about him as some of his choices in the first act miss their mark. However, he is charming, and when we see him (sans suit) in Act Two, he’s much more comfortable in his own shoes and shines.
Act Two transports us to 1995 and we are introduced to Charlie and his Father (Curtis Smith). Charlie, the teenage version of Charles, is slumped in his seat, listening to his walkman and brooding. His Father, which you immediately assume to be the infamous Mitchell of Act One, is working through his own feelings as he stands at the grave of his now deceased father. There is something very stiff and out-of-place about Smith in this scene, and it works beautifully. As he tries to relate to his son, you can see the out-of-touch father he has become, and when you put it up against all we learned about him in Act One, we are reminded that there is always two sides to every story. You don’t hate Mitchell. It’s a really sly move on the playwright’s part, and while Act Two maybe goes on about 10 minutes too long, it also has some of the more heart-tugging scenes.
But Act Two also has a couple of moments that undermine the play. Specifically when Mitchell uses a differently-abled word to express himself to his son. It is time for us, as artists, to stop encouraging audiences to laugh heartily at words like “retarded” and “down syndrome.” Differently-abled people are not comedic devices, and while perhaps we didn’t realize it as much in 1995, we do now. And yes Charlie did correct his Dad, informing him that we don’t say that anymore, but it’s presented in such a light-hearted way while ultimately setting Mitchell up for another differently-abled joke, that the response seems pointless. Attaway is a really smart writer, and his intent may have been to show Mitchell, in a rather altered state, trying to bridge the gap with his son by using language that places us in a period of time, but the moment does no service to the play.
Similarly, the prolonged smoking is off-putting, especially since no mention of on-stage smoking is given to ticket buyers until moments before they walk into the theater. And even the last-minute warning doesn’t prepare you for the extended length of the act. It’s a small confined space, and I left the theater with the scent clinging to me. It takes the audience out of the moment, rather than providing the intended realism.
I wish the prolonged smoking and the joke were not what I found myself dwelling on as I left the theater. THE GRAVE has a lot going for it, and Forest Attaway has a strong voice. This particular work offers some really fine moments from all the actors on stage, particularly Amy Attaway and Peggy Friesen and it is so vital we support local work, and encourage new plays. It’s vital we celebrate the incredible Kansas City talent filling The Living Room Theatre, but I find myself stopping short. As a parent of differently-abled children, I need us to stop using their beauty for a cheap laugh. We can do better.
THE GRAVE runs through June 24th. For more information visit thelivingroomkc.com.