The loss of a child is a tough topic to handle, but playwright Shelli Pentimall Bookler of Underbite Theatre Company has done just that, with searing insight and sensitivity, inserting surreal comedic light on the vast precipice of boundless grief.
A year after the death of their infant son, Alex, Wendy (Colleen Corcoran) and Karl’s (Anthony Marsala) relationship is on the brink. Individuals deal with death in different ways, and Wendy has found a placebo to placate her pain in the form of a baby doll she asserts is her son, Alex. She wheels the doll about in a carriage, pumps breast milks for bottles, tucks the ‘baby’ into bed; everything that would be done for a one year old. When the baby doll stops making noises, she swiftly, and efficiently adds new batteries. She is a good mother. The type of laughter provoked here seems to have an edge of guilt about it as the humor is indeed dark and edgy. Wendy’s husband Karl has tolerated what he views as her denial for the past year, but it is driving him stark mad, and he sternly insists it is time she faces the facts. Add to this grim milieu Inez (Marisol Custodio), the child’s caregiver, who kindly goes along with Wendy’s desires and takes care of the doll accordingly, and Dr. Francis (Barry Gomolka), a pattering new-age therapist who preaches the benefits of Bonsai, and the ensuing insanity reigns on stage.
Director Carly L. Bodnar, and stage manager Lori Walsh have left no dead spaces in this show. Action and movement are decisive, and the actors wonderfully adept at drawing the audience into their world. Corcoran and Marsala’s explosive dueling over the death of the baby drivesthe depth of the couple’s despair straight into the audience without apology. Custodio brings charismatic warmth to the role Inez, who turns out to be a real doll. Gomolka’s stalwart rendition of the out of touch doctor lends a dash of zany to the mix..
Jason Kramer’s smart set design, featuring several rooms separated by a suspended window frame, a perpendicularly placed door frame bisecting the stage, and intermingled floor coverings in conjunction with lighting designed by Richard Davis, invokes a sense of Erebus – a feeling of grave unreality.
All the Dead Biddles, in its World Premiere, is a well woven story, composed with compassion for it’s characters, veiled in wit, and threaded with inquiry into complexity customs and of grief and mourning.
[Plays & Players Skinner Studio, 1714 Delancey Place, Philadelphia]; January 11-21, 2018; playsandplayers.org