NEW YORK—Is it all right to move on with your life when the burden holding you back happens to be someone you love? This question is asked in William Donnelly’s touching comedic drama “No Wake.”
Edward (Stef Tovar) and Rebecca (Tricia Small) have both moved on since their rather contentious divorce. She’s now married to Roger (Tim Ransom), a rather reserved English gentleman she met on a cruise ship; Edward has gone through a number of relationships.
Their one remaining shared bond is their child, “Sukey,” who, after a prolonged period of apparent mental illness, including at least one breakdown, had long ago cut all ties to her family. All hopes for a reconciliation were dashed forever when Sukey committed suicide.
Sukey’s mental illness was the major factor in Edward’s leaving the marriage. By his own admission, he was unable to take walking into a mine field every time he came home.
Edward’s absence left Rebecca to shoulder the burden of caring for their daughter alone—at least until Sukey finally left home. Edward and Rebecca each tried to reconnect with Sukey at points over the years, only to be rebuffed.
Not surprisingly, Rebecca has been carrying around an unresolved anger towards her ex-husband, as well as toward her deceased daughter. Now, having just attended Sukey’s funeral and before packing up her child’s belongings, Rebecca is determined that she and Edward will deal with their roles in what has happened.
What could easily have been a Lifetime movie of the week, becomes much more in the capable hands of the show’s creative team. Donnelly’s text deftly switches from comic to dramatic and back again, with elements of nostalgia, sexual tension, long-simmering regret, and quiet reflection throughout.
None of the characters feel in any way contrived. This is especially important for Roger, who initially seems like a bumbling John Cleese. He’s responsible for most of the play’s humor, like his trying to say something to Edward that’s neither trite nor condescending. Through Ransom’s excellent portrayal and Veronica Brady’s brilliant direction, Roger becomes the most multi-layered character of all—from his initial awkwardness where he blurts out he doesn’t know what it’s like to lose a child, to where he reveals his own fears, failures, and unhappy perception of himself, which he’s desperately afraid Rebecca will see. His practice of mixing comedy with more serious subjects—dropping in a bit of trivia with a possible bout of fisticuffs—is wonderfully delivered.
Both Rebecca and Edward grieve over the loss of their daughter, knowing they now have a chance to move forward. Central to the show is the issue of whether it’s okay to feel relief when someone you loved, who also caused you so much pain, is finally gone. It’s hard to think of a loved one as an emotional ball and chain, yet that may be the reality.
Also present is a warning not to shut out those who want to stand by you in times of grief. Roger defers to Rebecca as to whether he should go with her to Sukey’s apartment. Rebecca, in exasperation, finally tells him not to bother. Yet Roger clearly does want to go with Rebecca, so he can continue to offer support to the woman he loves. Rebecca, so wrapped up in her own hurt, is unable to see this.
Ironically, Rebecca had earlier chided Edward for doing the same thing. He told his girlfriend back home he didn’t want her to come with him to the funeral, and she became just as angry at him as Roger is at Rebecca for being shut out of the grieving process.
Small and Tovar display an easy chemistry in their scenes together as they try to deal with unresolved issues without ripping open old wounds. Small portrays a woman trying to find closure and some peace of mind. Tovar does very well as Edward, a fellow who learned long ago that not making waves (an allusion to the show’s title) was the safest way to live. Yet in the play’s final moments, he delivers an emotion-laden speech which shows just how much he’s has changed over the last few days.
Brady’s direction shows a real feel for the story. The moments, scenes, and emotions shift effortlessly from one to the next to the ending which feels totally right.
Touching, powerful, and above all, honest, “No Wake” shows the potential for something new on the horizon if one can come to terms with the past and is ready to begin again.
Route 66 Theatre at 59E59 Theaters
59 E. 59th St.
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or 59E59.org
Running Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Closes: Oct. 15
Judd Hollander is a reviewer for Stagebuzz.com and a member of the Drama Desk and the Outer Critics Circle.