Where to go for exciting theater this fall? How about heading north? You may have seen Theresa Rebeck’s edgy SEMINAR at Stoneham Theatre this past month. You might even drive up to Beverly for the high kicking, gender bending choreography of North Shore Music Theatre’s LA CAGE AUX FOLLES but for solid ensemble magic you can’t beat Next Door Arts’ THE CEMETERY CLUB in Winchester running through Oct. 12th.
Some of Boston’s top divas are making Ivan Menchel’s script (about three Jewish widows in search of “life after death”) sizzle. The three dutifully visit their husband’s gravesites every month---but on one of these pilgrimages they encounter more than overgrown ivy. (There’s a forgettable movie of the script. I saw it but I can’t remember anything about it.) But the play is memorable, in large part because of the crackerjack performances at Next Door. Menchel’s first act teeters in sit-com territory but Act II unfolds to reveal lovely pathos. You may even find a tear in the corner of your eye, courtesy of Lida McGirr’s remarkable performance as the most conservative of the three.
The love story (not played exclusively for laughs) and the bonds of friendship are what make THE CEMETERY CLUB rise above caricature. Cheryl McMahon manages to form her character into a fully wrought human being, despite her dreadful obsession with furs and men. Sarah deLima brings innocence, exuberance and heartache to the role of the woman who gets a second chance with Paul D. Farwell’s solid mensch of a widower. Jane Meehan plays a menace of an Act II interloper with gusto. Director Brian Milauskas’ fine cast lifts the predictable plot into the realm of the touching.
I almost forgot the other star of Milauskas’ production: His exquisite set for the sweet, florally challenged (so many flowers: on the walls, on the wallpaper, on the door) grandmother says it all. She’s in need of a masculine presence and Farwell is just the charming leading man to provide it.
NOTE: Because Milauskas has moved the time of the piece to present day, you may have to adjust your mind-set back a few decades when women over 60 were expected to stop living (or at least stop having fun) after a divorce or the death of a spouse. (That’s not as bad as the 1950s soap opera, HELEN TRENT, which opened with “Can love come to a woman over 35?”) My feminist hackles started to twinge at the beginning of THE CEMETERY CLUB but it’s a comedy and you give yourself over to the premise, right? Right. And you laugh. You laugh a lot.