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Mama Drama 

What's Wrong With This Picture? (through Feb. 5 on the Civic's Main Stage) moves from sitcom to sadness, from absurdity to heartfelt emotion. Playwright Donald Margulies has set a demanding task for his actors, an obstacle course of shifting emotions.

Director Kim Roberts' cast doesn't always navigate the weepy and convivial moments during the course of What's Wrong, but the ensemble does create an affecting finale, with a couple of important characters changed and the theme of grief well explored.

The setup is that Mort, a Brooklyn dry cleaner, fixates on grieving over his wife. Seems that Shirley choked on some moo shoo pork. (This is a Jewish family. She was eating pork.) It's instructive to laugh at death like this, and even to cry in the midst of laughter, but it takes a range of subtle acting that's beyond the capabilities of this -- and most -- casts.

There's the bossy Jewish grandmother, the addled grandpa and the needy aunt -- all stereotypes, all sketched in to set up the father-and-son-grieving material to be dealt with later.

The son (clearly a Margulies stand-in) is young Artie, played here by Lewis and Clark High senior Cody Wymore in the evening's standout performance. First he cracks wise at great length about Mom's unexpected death, and it's evident how much he's in denial. (If Dad feels Mom's death too much, then the son will pretend to feel it scarcely at all.) Wymore is better at the comedy than the pathos demanded of his character near the end -- but since he delivers Artie's cynical asides so well, there's some nice preparation for the second-act catharsis. After Artie tires of playing the joker, he realizes how he'll have to accept the changes that death causes if he's ever going to be mature and independent; Wymore conveys that progression well.

All three women here seem miscast, being either too old or too young for the parts they've been asked to play. Toni Cummins and Phyllis Silver are supposed to be mother and daughter but don't look it. Both have good comic bits and even get some emotional mileage out of their characters' desires -- Cummins, with the mother's desire for a better daughter-in-law, and Silver with the insecurity beneath all of her character's not-very-Biblical covetousness.

As Shirley, the wife who pays a return visit to the household -- rumors of her demise apparently having been greatly exaggerated -- Evelyn Renshaw doesn't live out her character's exuberance. Mort is always going on about how quirky, impulsive, bubbly and just plain wonderful his wife was. Renshaw's got the matter-of-fact, I'm-a-ghost-and-what-of-it? act down -- it's the most affecting part of her performance -- but the liveliness that Mort and Artie comment on seldom appears. Renshaw overemphasizes the humdrum -- understandable, the dramatist having established that, in this play's world, dead people just pop up on your doorstep without a care in the world, give a brief smile and then start polishing the end tables.

In general, Maynard Villers portrays Mort's sadness better than the character's brighter side. For a long time when we first see them together, wife and husband aren't physically close: Is the playwright observing some rule that incorporeal ghosts can't be touched? But even when they do express affection, Villers and Renshaw don't project much warmth or enthusiasm. They took vows until death didn't part them, so why not communicate the giddy affection that's in the script and which each feels for the other?

It's another example of what's wrong with the Civic's Picture: The emotional plumb lines are skewed. As for What's Wrong in general ... the "Jewish Blithe Spirit"? The comparison's inexact. While Margulies' dialogue isn't as witty as Noel Coward's -- no demerits there -- his dramedy delves further into how grief should be tempered by the need to let go. We go about our living, failing to make room for the good times (both big and small) that we might have treasured up in future years. So it goes, and suddenly somebody dies -- somebody you loved very much -- and there's no going back, only independent (and somewhat lonely) decision-making in the future. We can't live through another person, dead or alive.

Publication date: 1/20/04

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