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A CurtainUp Review
The Dance on Widows' Rowby Les Gutman
Nobody is as good or as great
as they are on the day of their funeral.
A long broad smile, many laughs, several gasps and a warm moment or two. These are the reactions you'll likely have to this enjoyable new play by Samm-Art Williams. It's a comedy with (as billed) a happy ending, despite the presence of a dead body onstage at its end. Absurd? Perhaps, but you'll likely not notice. What you will appreciate is what a fine observer of human nature Williams proves, again, to be.
Exploding onto Broadway two decades ago with his Tony-nominated Home, Williams went on to act, write and produce for television (and, to a lesser extent, film). Although his early work eschewed black stereotypes, Widows' Row celebrates the caricatures of successful small Southern town African-Americana without letting them commandeer his more universal story. You may be reminded of television's Golden Girls, but you'll certainly conjure up Arsenic and Old Lace as well.
Magnolia Ellis (Barabara Montgomery) is a woman who likes to plan. She and her neighbors on Fremont Street in Port Town, N.C. are lonely. They're all widows -- townfolk call the street "Widows' Row". So Magnolia invites three of her neighbors over to her home (gorgeously eclectic as designed by Felix Cochren), and four eligible men as well.
But there is a problem. Between them, the women have buried nine husbands and, while life insurance policies have made them all well off, there's talk that they had a hand in causing all those funerals. Will the gentlemen be callers? Well, they are still "the finest courting ladies in the county," so three of the four men eventually show up.
What follows is filled with surprises that I'd best not reveal, and some wonderful, if patterned, characters. Williams has embellished both by some fine performances he's drawn from his veteran actors. Just as Magnolia is in command of the story, Montgomery controls the stage. Her's is an energetic rendering of this doyen of the block.
Marie Thomas, as Simone, who fancies herself a famous actress, is Magnolia's cynical counterpoint. Then there's Lois Miller (Elain Graham), in whom Williams has settled the play's intrigue. A definite cause for concern (two of her husbands died of food poisoning), she doesn't seem able to form a sentence that doesn't have some allusion to death or murder. But it's in the Bible-thumping Annie Talbot (Elizabeth Van Dyke) that Williams has deposited his biggest surprise. Suffice it to say, in the words of Deacon Hudson (Adam Wade), it goes "way beyond Christian fellowship".
The good deacon -- Magnolia has her eyes on this goodlooking white-haired gentleman, Wade does an exceptional job of making us see why -- has cajoled Newly Benson (Jack Landrón) to accompany him. Newly is a veteran of Vietnam and Desert Storm, but he's not looking for the grim reaper. He's the local skeptic, a good match, it would seem, for Simone. But Williams keeps the romantic equations in flux, soon adding turkey magnate Randolph Spears (Ed Wheeler, who is particularly adept) to the mix. Who does what with and to whom? No clues here; go see for yourself. You'll have nothing to cry about.