Although we'll probably debate the existence of an afterlife right up until the last two of our species remain, one thing we do know about death is that life continues afterwards for the living. But that might also be where any certainty ends. Losing a close friend or loved one affects each of us differently, and the ways we grieve and recover from that loss will depend very much on the person.
Ivan Menchell's The Cemetery Club is a play very much about those very individual responses to the death of a partner. It centers on three late-middle-aged Jewish widows — Doris, Lucille and Ida — who meet regularly and visit their husbands' graves. Outwardly, they'd seem to have a lot in common. Privately, though, each of them has very specific ideas about love, marriage, loyalty and mourning, and problems arise because those ideas aren't mutually shared.
In a new Ignite! Community Theatre production of The Cemetery Club directed by Troy Heppner, Gail Cory-Betz plays good-natured Ida, who lost her husband Murray a little over two years before the play opens.
"As far as what stage of grieving she's at, she has come to terms with the fact that Murray is gone and not coming back. But she's lonely. She and her husband had a great relationship, a wonderful marriage. She describes him as a wonderful man," Cory-Betz says.
"Once a month, she meets with her friends. They have tea, they go to the cemetery, they play canasta, they see new movies. And even though she enjoys her friends' company, for her that's not enough. She would really like to have a relationship or at least open herself up to that possibility."
Soon Ida meets Sam (Jerry Uppinghouse), a local butcher and a widower himself. The two hit it off and slowly find themselves falling for one another.
"In one scene with her friend Doris, Ida describes when she had a chance to sit down and visit with Sam, just the two of them. She says that was the first time since Murray's death that she had felt alive. And she felt a little guilty for feeling that good, but she wasn't going to give in to that feeling because she didn't want to feel guilty for wanting to be held by another man."
Ida grows increasingly conflicted, and the advice from disapproving Doris (Phedre Burney-Peters) only magnifies that inner conflict. Doris believes that marriage extends beyond "till death do us part" and honors the memory of her late husband Abe by remaining committed to him even after his passing. In her opinion, Ida should do the same.
Meanwhile, Lucille, played by Lauralynn "Lulu" Stafford, insists on offering her own advice.
"She's trying to push her to start dating and play the field," Cory-Betz says. Ida also hears about Selma, a casual friend who "remarries every time she loses a husband," and thinks that "maybe Selma has the right idea."
The budding romance between Ida and Sam and the increasingly unsettled dynamic among the trio of friends aren't the only forces that have an effect on these characters. There's also Mildred, played by Kris Behr.
"She's definitely an outsider. She's nobody's best friend because she's extremely annoying," Behr laughs. "And the girls like to talk about her behind her back because she talks incessantly and she's loud and weird."
While Mildred might come up quite a bit in conversation, her actual stage time is short. Yet the brevity of her appearance shouldn't downplay its importance.
"I'm just in one small scene but it turns and takes the play in a different direction. Mildred actually provides a pretty pivotal part in the play where one of the characters is kind of not sure if she wants to start dating again. She sees me with a fella that she kind of likes, and I've got my hands all over him. That's when she's like, 'OK, I'm going to fight for my man.'"
Scenes and characters like that are what make The Cemetery Club "touching" as well as "extremely funny," Behr says. Which is one reason why she's going all in with a thick New York accent.
"There's a lot of humor," Cory-Betz agrees. "Just in the way they talk, the way they tease each other."
Along with humor, she adds, there's something universally recognizable in what each of the characters is going through.
"When a marriage ends due to death, we all have our own opinions as to what the person left behind should do. Sometimes you need to listen to both sides of that argument and keep your mind open. Yes, there's a lot of humor in this play. But there's also a lot of honesty." ♦
The Cemetery Club • Nov. 8-24; Fri-Sat at 7:30 pm, Sun at 2 pm • $15 • Ignite! Community Theatre • 10814 E. Broadway Ave., Spokane Valley • igniteonbroadway.org • 795-0004