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It would be misleading to suggest that Jeffrey Hatcher’s monologue trilogy, Three Viewings, is designed to put the fun back in funerals. The playwright clearly has serious things in mind when he gives three small-town characters a chance to offer coffin-side confessionals during pre-burial viewings of their loved ones. But Hatcher’s sensibility is so quirky, and his way with the lingo of grief so oddly bouncy, that most Source Theater patrons will be happily chuckling on their way to the ambush he’s planned for them at the mortuary.
Take the second, and most effective, of Three Viewings‘ viewings. It features a brassy, blowsy woman named Mac (Gráinne Cassidy) who fingers her bracelets while announcing brightly that she’s been robbing corpses for years. “Grandma will be a cinch,” she says, launching into an animated description of earrings mouthed and diamond rings slipped off fingers at the open-coffin wakes of strangers.
The prodigal daughter of a clan that has little use for her, she has an agenda on this particular return to the frosty bosom of her family. Grannie once reneged on the promise of a jewel-encrusted bauble, and Mac means to claim it as her rightful inheritance through a bit of what could be called pre-emptive grave-robbing. Naturally, things don’t go quite as planned, what with well-wishers bustling up to ask Mac how her hubby and two kids are getting on. The answer to that question—which she habitually deflects with a joke that turns out to have an unexpectedly macabre payoff—provides the segment with an ending O. Henry would appreciate.
Cassidy, at once haunting and uproarious as Mac, proves adept at using crisp jests to convey what the audience ultimately recognizes as anguish. If her delivery is that of a stand-up comic (“Thomas Wolfe was wrong: Of course you can go home, they make you go home all the time”), her demeanor reveals a woman who’s been battered by life in ways she never expected. Her story is rending as much because she’s unwilling to let on that she’s hurting as because of its events. Right up to its conclusion, the playwright has her working punch lines for all they’re worth.
Hatcher’s approach to the other two viewings is more direct, but he still manages to pull off surprises for their finales. In the curtain raiser, funeral director Emil (Hugh Nees) is all aquiver. Standing at a professional remove from the coffin in the next room, he’s mouthing unrequited “I love you” ‘s to the back of a mourner’s head, hoping against hope that she’ll turn around and catch him. If she does, of course, he’ll be mortified, but he simply can’t help himself.
The object of his affections is a real estate agent named Tessie who has a knack for dispensing business cards to bereaved families without appearing ghoulish. She’s there all the time, and Emil has become so transfixed by her enterprising joie de crypt that he’s taken to alerting her about upcoming wakes. Every time she attends, he increases the number of “I love you” ‘s he mouths behind her back. He’s reached seven when we meet him and, as played by a plaintively pixilated Nees, seems prepared to go much higher. Fate intervenes before he makes a total fool of himself, affording him several opportunities to be with his beloved that are not quite what he’d dreamed.
The third monologue is that of a somewhat scattered widow named Virginia (Nancy Grosshans) who finds unnerving surprises as she sifts through the wreckage of her late husband’s estate. She and her husband spoke to one another so infrequently that she had to ask him to pretend to talk to her at social events (he obliged by whispering “Mary had a little lamb” in her ear). Even so, she’s shocked at how little she knows about his business affairs. Finding herself in debt to banks, relatives, and even gangsters, she muses on what she calls “the sin of failure” and begins to wonder if she knew him at all. Fortunately, there seems to have been more communication going on than she was ever aware of.
Since all three stories have trick endings, theater patrons may find themselves getting ahead of the author on plot points by the time this segment rolls around. But Hatcher’s way with idiosyncratic details (“a casserole made entirely of boiled apples, Spam, and noodles”) ensures that the monologues stay fresh even when heading in familiar directions. It’s hard not to wonder what sparks might fly if the playwright brought two characters together or cross-faded from one story to another. But given his linguistic agility—as when the out-of-it widow in the third segment says her daughter is “listening to Prozac, and I don’t want to interrupt”—audiences may well be willing to overlook Three Viewings‘ dramatic thinness and accept the author’s trickiness as its own reward.