By Cyndi Williams; Directed by Judson Jones
Produced by Theatre East
Off Broadway, Play
Ran through 11.26.16
Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street
by Sarah Weber on 11.26.16
Emily Verla and Kathleen Huber in A Name for a Ghost to Mutter. Photo by James M. Wilson.
BOTTOM LINE: A refreshing exploration of a family tree and the ghosts who never had a chance to tell their side of the story, until now.
Though we place tremendous value on family heritage, we also tune out as our parents and grandparents recite old family stories over and over again. This contradiction lies at the heart of Cyndi Williams’ A Name for a Ghost to Mutter, a steady-paced family drama about a mother, her children, a mysterious pile of cash, and a deceased relative with unfinished business.
The play often flashes back to various time periods, but it’s mostly set in 1999 at an old Oklahoma home. Lucretia (Kathleen Huber) is now not only the sole keeper of her family’s stories, but is also tasked with going through the belongings of her late cousin Lala (Emily Verla). Assisting in this undertaking are Lucretia’s three children—Julie (Christa Kimlicko Jones), Augie (David Volin), and Maud (Rachel Caplan)—who are happy to help though they know it means being subject to her stories for several weeks. While cleaning out the house, they begin finding several thousands of dollars' worth of small bills and spare change. Why was Lala stashing away all of this cash in her purses, drawers, and coat pockets?
As they pick at this mystery, we watch Lala’s ghost desperately trying to interact with her family. We are also introduced to glimpses of her imperfect marriage with her controlling husband, “B” (Tom Green), and just how close she might have been with Felix (Ryan George), the waiter at their longtime favorite watering hole? Williams’ story is also infused with a vibrant feminist streak as we watch both Lala and Lucretia’s aunt Augusta (Lori Fischer) and grandmother Gabrielle (Kelly Kunkel) grapple with the restrictive expectations women were once expected to meet. The more history we see, the more the audience begins to realize how many important lessons have been lost over time, and just how close the apple falls to the tree.
Unlike most family dramas, A Name for a Ghost to Mutter is not fraught with terribly high stakes and it goes down slowly, like a cool glass of sweet iced tea—sometimes too slow. Flashbacks can add depth to a story, though one wonders if each and every single one is necessary. That said, the cast and design team draw our attention the entire show. As Lucretia, Huber’s deeply nuanced performance is especially heartbreaking as we watch her struggle with being the last remnant of her generation: “I think sixty’s too young to be the oldest. No one remembers me as a little girl.”
It’s also not very often that I have the privilege of witnessing an entirely cohesive and seamless design. Jessie Bonaventure’s set emphasizes the themes of family continuity and history; she makes clever use of a screen on stage that switches between different family photos and is framed by tree branches. The set never changes, but Sherry Martinez’s costumes are the only cues we need to know exactly which time period we’re in. I was especially impressed with her use of a red dress that Julie finds in Lala’s closet. By the time she finds the dress it’s washed out, looking more like a light blood-orange; moments later we see Lala in the same dress, but in its original vibrant red, instantly letting us know that we’re going back in time.
Though A Name for a Ghost to Mutter speaks to a specific American experience, most can relate to this family’s struggle to reconcile their past and move forward. This play is also a great choice to anyone looking for a story with vibrant feminist overtones.
(A Name for a Ghost to Mutter played at Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street, through November 26. Tickets were $18. For more information visit theatreeast.org.)
A Name for a Ghost to Mutter is by Cyndi Williams. Directed by Judson Jones. Scenic Design by Jessie Bonaventure. Costume Design by Sherry Martinez. Lighting Design by Zach Murphy. Sound Design by John D. Ivy. Production Stage Manager was Tina Truong.
The cast was Emily Verla, Rachel Caplan, Lori Fischer, Ryan George, Tom Green, Kathleen Huber, Christa Kimlicko Jones, Kelly Kunkel, and David Volin.