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Colder Than Here

You know the funeral isn't. Isn't for you. It's for us. Maybe if you could leave us, maybe something to do. To be -- To be occupied with. After you -- People need something to do. --- Alec.

Sarah Paulson &  Lily Rabe in Colder than Here
Sarah Paulson & Lily Rabe
(Photo: Joan Marcus )

Last Saturday and Sunday might be summed up as a Kubler-Ross weekend. On Saturday afternoon I watched Mia Farrow and her on stage husband and daughters trying to understand why and how she ended up in a coma from which she was unlikely to recover. Sunday night, in the same theater where I followed Veanne Cox's character in The Last Easter go through stage four breast cancer, the Grim Reaper once again dominated the stage in MCC's New York premiere of Colder Than Here. This time the patient at death's door is Judith Light (second stage bone cancer) and the play's action revolves around the plans for her funeral in which she enlists her husband and two daughters (about the same age as Farrow's stage daughters).

You might call Light a veteran of on stage dying since she did a much praised stint as the cancer-stricken Donne scholar in Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize winning Wit (also from MCC). Like Edson, Laura Wade is a very young playwright (healthy and with healthy parents) who's been embraced with awards and commissions by the British theater community. And while her story about a British housewife and mother who finds a way to renew and strengthen family ties in the process of dealing with her exit from life is a much better play than the more experienced James Lapine's Fran's Bed, it is often painful to watch.

Yes, it's a black comedy and as much about living as dying, but some of the fears about death that are substantiated by Light's Myra have a way of etching themselves into your memory for days and a few possible nightmare filled nights to come, especially if you're old enough for that colder than here darkness of Wade's title not to be eons away, or if you've recently coped with a friend or relative's terminal illness.

The above caveat aside, Ms. Wade's characters and the social rituals connected with death and dying do provide comic as well as heart-tugging potential: Myra's control freak response to her death includes a Power Point presentation entitled "My Funeral by Myra Bradley" . . .  Alec (Brian Murray), the uncomfortably locked in his own little world husband, venting his grief on the boiler that resists fixing so that he can't even help his wife to die without being warm. . .  the pretty but messed-up Jenna (Lily Rabe) and Sarah Paulson as the more stable daughter Harriet, each struggling to accept their mother's obsession with the details of her death and funeral along the lines recommended by the Natural Death Movement.

For me, the comedic elements never really defused the bleak subject. Wade is a sensitive enough playwright to overcome one's intial sense of this play being more researched and manufactured than Edson's Wit, which was an outgrowth of her actually working on the cancer and AIDS inpatient unit of a research hospital. Ms. Wade has used her research to create a moving picture of a dying woman who is able to find a measure of peace and acceptance when she realizes that her best parting gift to her family is to let them stand on their own, and grieve in their own way.

Abigail Morris, who also directed Colder in London, has staged it gracefully and the MCC cast couldn't be better. Judith Light is affectingly acerbic and woeful as Myra. Lily Rabe, who bears a striking resemblance to her mother, Jill Clayburgh, is terrific as the needy daughter who seems least capable of being a nourishing presence during this stressful period. Sarah Paulson delicately conveys the older sister's struggle to accept and deal with her mother's focus on the inevitable funeral.

But it's Brian Murray as Alec (the only cast member not needing the services of dialect coach Stephen Gabis for his authentic Britspeak) who best manages to blend the dark humor as well as the aching void in families where husbands, wives and sisters are unable to connect with one another. As Myra gradually lets go and the family is able to become closer, so Murray's Alec starts out uncommunicative except for an occasional one-liner (i.e.: Harriet's exasperated "Mum's dying and you're sitting there reading the paper" prompts his caustic "Watched pot never boils, love"). It is his quiet cry of pain ("You know the funeral isn't for you. It's for us. Maybe if you could leave us, maybe something to do.") that serves as a sort of turning point for Myra to let go and give her family a chance to enjoy having her around, rather than to grieve prematurely. His long one-sided telephone conversation with the boiler company's outsourced repairman not only brings a much needed comic interlude at the top of the second act, but is one of the play's most heart-felt and satisfying scenes.

Jeff Cowie's sparsely furnished living room (which at on point includes an ecology friendly cardboard coffin) sits on an upstage platform surrounded by an equally spare forest, at first glance looks a bit like an updated estate in a Chekhov play. Actually, this indoor/outdoor unit set is perfect for the shifts between the family living room to the various potential burial sites visited by Myra and her daughters. Candice Donnelly's costumes, especially for Lily Rabe, are equally on the mark.

Ms. Wade has apparently not exhausted her interest in death and dying. Breathing Corpses, written right after Colder Than Here for London's Royal Court Theater, is said to be riddled with corpses and coffins. I can't help but hope that she will eventually diversify her repertoire with something besides the dance of death.

By Laura Wade Playwright:
Directed by Abigail Morris.
Cast: Judith Light, Brian Murray, Sarah Paulson, and Lily Rabe
Set Design: Jeff Cowie
Costume Design: Candice Donnelly
Lighting Design: Michael Chybowski
Sound Design: John Leonard
Running time: 90 minutes without intermission.
MCC at Lucille Lortel Theatre, 121 Christopher Street 212-279-4200
Projection Design: Brian H. Kim
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
From 9/07/05 to 10/15/05; opening 9/28/05
Tues at 7pm, Wed through Sat at 8pm; Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2pm.
Tickets: $55.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 9/25 press performance
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