No one needs to be told that tragedies can bring families together. And before seeing Grieving for Genevieve at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, I would have told you that no one needed to see another play about it, either.
After all, doesn't the title tell you everything you need to know? You're in for a solemn, stodgy drama, probably filled with women sharing long-held secrets who miraculously bond when they gather together to mourn the death - or celebrate the life - of a friend. A darker, grittier Steel Magnolias just waiting for the chance to show you how honest and important it is.
But playwright Kathleen Warnock has no interest in the easy way out. Yes, she's written a touching family drama about a group of women and what happens when they come together. But in every other way, Grieving for Genevieve defies conventional wisdom about what these plays should sound like and how they should behave. First, and perhaps most important, she's populated the stage with harsh, difficult-to-like characters who rebuff your attempts to feel their dreams and experience their pain.
Sentimentality doesn't come easy to the three central sisters: Delilah (Karen Stanion), a foul-mouthed musician whose trashy attire suggests she's only half a step removed from prostitution as a profession, who's getting married (again); Angel (Susan Barnes Walker), a nun laden with bad habits (drinking, smoking, and swearing); and Danni (Derin Altay), the oldest, a single, hard-hearted businesswoman who conducts as much of her life as possible away from the Baltimore home her siblings have never escaped.
Finally, there's Genevieve (Jo Anne Bonn), their mother. Her domineering ways, unrealistic demands, and attempts to keep her three adult daughters children forever have alienated herself from all of them. She tries to take over all the wedding planning, lays guilt trips on everyone at every opportunity, plays with the sisters' affections, and especially assaults Danni to try to bring her back into the family fold.
Then, at the end of the first act, she has a stroke.
But Warnock doesn't use this as an excuse to refashion the play into a weepy, hand-wringing drama full of blame-casting and blatant, tear-jerking revelations. No - after everything changes, nothing changes. Oh, Bonn's performance becomes much more physical - she's relegated to a wheelchair, speechless, for the entire second act - and the specific topics of the women's discussions change a bit. But the characters have no split-second changes of heart, and what evolutions in attitude do occur happen so gradually that you barely notice them before they've passed.
Despite this, there's not a trace of dreariness or self-consciousness in the show, nor is there a lack of humor or emotion. It's all perfectly balanced, smoothed out into a dramatic stretch that's completely seamless except for an intermission. Warnock and her director, Peter Bloch, thrust you violently into the action, but there's no learning curve - the energy and specificity of the performances are such that you feel as if you've known these women for decades. Their layers are slowly peeled away - now anger is revealed, now tenderness - but they're surprising precisely because they're not surprising at all.
The acting is, on the whole, extremely natural and unaffected; only Walker betrays even a hint of artifice, likely unavoidable given her character's perhaps too-overt contradictory nature. But Altay, who plays Danni as always simmering violently, gives a powerful performance as the prodigal sister who resists her responsibilities to her family for as long as she can; she centers the play with her complex, angry portrayal. Stanion's Delilah is hilariously bitchy but never a caricature, and Bonn's equally expressive as a Genevieve capable of criticizing, condemning, and condescending as she is one who has been robbed of the power of speech.
Yet when those words are taken away, the drama becomes even more powerful: Genevieve stops being a meddlesome mother and takes on the regal bearing of a queen who's finally gotten everything she's always wished for. And Genevieve has: Her family is whole again, and her daughters are there to cater to her every whim. That she's no longer capable of completely enjoying it is actually incidental. It doesn't really matter to her.
And because she and the others are so convincing, it doesn't really matter to us, either. No, there's no grieving for this Genevieve, or for the play that can barely contain her. True grief only arises when the play ends and you're forced to abandon a family that's this richly realized in dramatic terms. This family might be angrier, more caring, or more frustrating than yours, but Warnock, Bloch, and the actresses have made it every bit as real.
Grieving for Genevieve