Normally, when I go see a play or a movie, by the time I’m sitting in the theater I’ve read a handful of reviews and know the production back-story. I enjoy having the knowledge beforehand and it makes me feel more invested while I watch the story unfold.
This past Friday, I went to see the play Be a Good Little Widow at The Old Globe. My boyfriend, Kevin, got a call from a friend at 6:30pm that night asking if we wanted his tickets. Kevin rushed over to get them and we made it to the play a few minutes before the 8pm start time.
We found our seats in the very intimate theater-in-the-round (the stage is in the center and the audience forms a circle around it). I’ve always enjoyed theater set up this way because it makes me feel as if I’m part of the stage setting. I can look across and see other audience members’ reactions and it becomes a more communal experience. This is the same reason I’ve always slightly hated it. I don’t want my emotional reactions on display for my fellow theatergoers to see.
The play opens with a young newlywed couple, Melody (Zoe Winters) and Craig (Ben Graney), as Craig arrives home from a weeklong business trip. Their interactions (the playful banter, the way they touched each other, the jokes and the slight resentment for how much Craig works) all felt so real. It was as if the playwright, Bekah Brunstetter, had put a video camera in my living room and had been secretly taping my relationship for the last few months. As that first scene came to an end I realized I was in trouble. Everything about this couple on stage hit so close to home. And the title of the play is Be a Good Little Widow. “This is going to be bad. I don’t think I can handle this,” I thought to myself as the lights came back on for the next scene.
Part of the genius of Brunstetter’s script is that she doesn’t make Melody and Craig’s relationship perfect. She allows Melody to get annoyed with how often Craig calls from the airport to check-in. And when Craig’s coworker, Brad, stops by the house Melody changes into a more revealing yoga outfit. Melody and Brad’s flirtation doesn’t cloud her love for her husband. If anything, I thought it made the character more relatable.
Far too often in romantic comedies the couple falls in love and the story ends when it’s really just beginning. Watching Melody struggle as she tries to figure out what it means to be a “wife” is the realistic second act to every romantic comedy that ends in a first kiss or confession of love.
When Brad leaves after an almost-kiss, Melody turns on the television to see that Craig’s plane crashed and everyone on board died. This was the start of the whirlwind ride of emotions Brunstetter so adeptly took the audience on for the next hour.
I’ve always loved watching how theatre portrays flashbacks. Film has it so easy with its dissolves and changes to black and white or sepia tones. Theatre must be more creative. After Craig’s death, Melody has flashbacks to their proposal and other significant moments. This is where Zoe Winters as Melody really shines. Her ability to go from completely disheveled widow to happy girlfriend with a knock at the door is beyond impressive. The look in her eyes when she sees Craig again, not as a ghost but as her boyfriend in the past, is all the audience needs to distinguish between past and present.
One of the most chilling scenes comes when Melody dreams of what it would have been like if Craig had been on a different plane. He comes home safely from his work trip and turns on the TV to see a news report of a plane crash. Melody watches the news, comments on how horrible it is, and then asks Craig if he’s ready for dinner. This snapshot of how every one of us reacts to terrible events we are not directly affected by rings hauntingly true until she is brought back to reality and the devastation hits her all over again.
Melody’s relationship with Craig’s mother, Hope, becomes central to the story after Craig’s death. Their interactions run the gamut from Melody trying too hard to hate and resentment and finally to mutual grief. When Melody tries to help plan the funeral and make it more personal by putting out Craig’s favorite candy and playing his favorite music, Hope shuts down the ideas because they are not “proper” funeral behavior. This idea that there are rules to be followed and a specific way one should handle death is one of the more interesting generational differences between the characters. Hope has already buried her own husband, and now her son, so she expects Melody to do things exactly how she did. By showing these two women grieve in such seemingly different ways, the play adeptly gets across the understanding that there is no “right” way to grieve.
Brunstetter’s script manages the ideal balance of comedy and drama throughout. Just as I could feel the audience collectively holding its breath and choking back tears, a perfect moment of humor and lightness would wash through everyone and the room would be shaking with laughter.
To say Be a Good Little Widow struck a cord with me would be a gross understatement. It is an amazing portrait of 20-something love at this moment in time. But the wonderful thing about this script and the actors is that it didn’t feel like it was only trying to speak to one generation of people. This is a play about love and learning to grieve and cope with life the best one can, at any age.
If you are in San Diego you need to click over and buy tickets immediately. And for all my out of town readers, come to San Diego before June 7th and see this hilariously heartbreaking piece of theater. This may sound like hyperbole, but my life felt like it changed just a little bit on the walk home from the theater that evening. Maybe yours will too.