Colder Than Here: Good Grief
I stuck around for the talk-back after Tuesday night's performance of Laura Wade's Colder Than Here. A lot of people feel a work of art should speak for itself, but I rather enjoy hearing the artist speaking for it. Joining the playwright was Dr. Debra Morrison-Dyke, a clinical psychologist with a specialization in bereavement, the main subject of Wade's play. I certainly don't want to suggest any disrespect for the doctor's high opinion of the piece, but the more she spoke the more it seemed like her enthusiasm came primarily from a professional appreciation.
The doctor and the playwright discussed the ever growing number of circumstances where physicians can now predict with reasonable accuracy how long a patient has to live when stricken with a fatal disease. As a result, families and loved ones can be put in a position of extended grieving for many months before the actual death. They talked about different behaviors and issues that come up in these situations, and the author added that she never intended to write a play about bereavement, but it was simply a subject that she stumbled onto while working on play with related themes.
And that's when it began to strike me why I felt so indifferent to the play I had just seen. There's a certain textbook quality to Colder Than Here. It's well-structured and informative but, for me at least, the characters seemed to pop out of a pamphlet the hospital might give to family members to help explain the emotions they're going through. Part of the problem was certainly director Abigail Morris' dreadfully solemn pacing, but although I imagine people who have gone through this experience might surely be moved by the play, and those involved with bereavement as a profession may be both moved and enthusiastic for its accurate depictions of family behaviors, the play on its own seems to lack an emotional pull without those prerequisite connections.
But fine, accomplished actors like Judith Light and Brian Murray help supply empathy that might otherwise be missing. Set in Great Britain, where the play premiered, an extremely slender Light plays Myra, a mother in her mid-50's suffering from advanced secondary bone cancer with about six months to live. There's no time for self-pity, as Myra is determined to make all funeral arrangements herself and to patch up any family problems that need her maternal touch.
Myra wishes to placed in a greenfield burial site. These have become very popular in Britain, but are much rarer in the states. There are no headstones, just trees and small wooden plaques to identify the deceased. People are buried in cardboard caskets for swift and ecological decomposition. (They come in simple, do-it-yourself kits and can be painted, if desired.)
So in between trips to scout out prospective eternal resting places and creating a PowerPoint presentation so her family will know exactly how she wants her funeral run, Myra tries to build up the self-esteem of youngest daughter Jenna (Lily Rabe) who seems to have settled for an unhealthy romantic relationship at age 27. ("While I'm still here, I can help. After I kick it, you're on your own.")
We gradually learn of Myra's marital problems with Alec (Brian Murray) and although eldest daughter Harriet (Sarah Paulson) has no specific conflict of her own to deal with, the emotional distance between family members, as well as a busted boiler which has kept their home unheated for months, has left them in a perpetually chilly state.
Light's delicate touch with the character's spunk and humor masks all but a trace of her underlying determination to avoid facing her own mortality. The always-impressive Brian Murray has an underdeveloped role composed mostly of gruff and exasperated reactions until the author provides one very moving and confrontational scene where Alec demands that Myra stop controlling the entire business of her death ("You know the funeral isn't for you. It's for us.") while she encourages him to find another mate when she's gone. Gracefully ending with a lovely funny/sad moment, this scene, in the hands of two fine artists, is the only time Colder Than Here truly seems alive.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: Lily Rabe and Sarah Paulson
Center: Sarah Paulson and Lily Rabe
Bottom: Judith Light