Stage & Dance

Review: Funeral-home play full of life

Samantha Doane-Bates is one of three characters in Jeffrey Hatcher's play Three Viewings, a trio of extended monologues about paying one's respects that will be performed in an actual funeral home.
Samantha Doane-Bates is one of three characters in Jeffrey Hatcher's play Three Viewings, a trio of extended monologues about paying one's respects that will be performed in an actual funeral home.

If you think about it, all funerals, like weddings, contain strong elements of theater. People have lines to memorize, roles to play, costumes to wear. There is even an audience that will evaluate everyone's performances on the way home.

On the Verge takes the innate theatrical elements of funerals even further in its latest production, Three Viewings.

A trio of monologues by Jeffrey Hatcher, Three Viewings stars Adam Luckey, Robbie Morgan and Samantha Doane-Bates as three mourners grappling with death.

The sold-out crowd that gathered Friday at Milward Funeral Home off Man o' War Boulevard might have been there just to witness the curious spectacle of a play in a funeral home, but they got much more than a unique experience — the evening's performances were simply exquisite.

Director Ave Lawyer deftly incorporates the serene funeral home — with its lofty skylight and baby grand piano — into the fabric of the play. With Chopin's nocturnes spilling into the space before and after each monologue and with clever use of the available lighting, the funeral space and the actors function in a kind of gentle symbiosis. The combination of setting and subject matter creates the atmospheric illusion that death itself is looming as a silent, fourth character.

Seldom do we get to see monologues performed publicly, and Three Viewings is a powerful testament to the format's efficacy.

Luckey begins the evening as Emil, a mortician who is in love with one of his funeral home's "regulars," a real estate shark named Tessie who trolls funerals to drum up new business. It's a rare treat to see Luckey play a shy, neurotic, diffident character. He repeatedly whispers "I love you" behind Tessie's back, hoping she will catch him. He even gives her tips on impending deaths.

Luckey incorporates nervous mannerisms, such as the constant tugging at his suit jacket, to punctuate his character's anxiety and insecurity. Despite this, there is an irreverent but slightly pathetic humor about him even as he comes face to face with his own grief.

The humor and pain in the first monologue feel a bit subtle, detached. Luckey gives us the sense that Emil approaches life as more of a voyeur than a participant. But Morgan's monologue as Mac, who steals jewelry from corpses for a living, nearly hits you over the head with wry, high-octane humor followed by a completely unexpected gut punch of sorrow.

Morgan delivers a bold, magnetic performance as the sardonic misfit returning home to steal a ring from her dead grandmother. While Mac's career and attitude seem as deplorable as they are morbidly fascinating, the final thrust of the monologue reveals a harrowing secret that explains her behavior. It is during that revelation that the pathos in Morgan's performance aligns with some incredible writing by Hatcher in a true tearjerker moment.

Speaking of revelations, Doane-Bates' character has to wait for hers to come from someone else. As the widow of a "real wheeler-dealer," Virginia is shocked to learn that she owes millions in business deals gone sour.

Played with delicate but humorous bewilderment, Virginia teeters on ruin when she should be in mourning. Doane-Bates, so in character it was almost creepy, delivers a staggeringly poignant performance that is made sweeter by ending the evening on a note of unexpected salvation.

If you listen carefully, you'll note that the three characters are not as separate as they seem, a surprising touch that adds to the evening's sense of cohesion.

The effectiveness of Three Viewings suggests that there is a side effect shared by good theater and good funerals: When each is over, you ought to feel a little bit more alive.