LAFFERTY’S WAKE (Society Hill Playhouse): Putting the fun in funeral

Excerpted by kind permission from Neals Paper.

Jason Klemm as Rory, the pub owner, in Society Hill Playhouse's production of LAFFERTY'S WAKE (Photo courtesy of Michelle Pauls)
Jason Klemm as Rory, the pub owner, in Society Hill Playhouse’s production of LAFFERTY’S WAKE (Photo courtesy of Michelle Pauls)

For a wee brief while, I was Jimmy O’Donnell, paying respects to my great friend and boon companion, one Charlie Lafferty, whose funeral is the occasion for the audience participation play at the Society Hill Playhouse, LAFFERTY’S WAKE. Don’t worry. Not everyone in the audience is pegged for a part, and most of the character assignments are references by which a cast member points at you while speaking about a given character from Charlie’s life in the Donegal village of Ballyslattery.

Even mourners like Jimmy, who have to ad lib, are asked questions that make their responses simple and to the point. Mind you, it’s best to let the professionals who are performing an actual play, and an entertaining one, do the heavy lifting and keep things moving, as directed by Society Hill’s venerable artistic chief, Deen Kogan. The LAFFERTY’S WAKE ensemble is about as quick and amiable as you can get and Susan Turlish has written a gentle comic story, filled with enough Irish-isms and jokes to be genuinely amusing. Turlish has some obvious lines in her script and does some stereotyping, but it’s all for fun.

Unlike other works in this genre (Tony & Tina’s WeddingBubby’s FuneralLAFFERTY’S WAKE is an actual play with frequent but no pressuring or embarrassing moments of audience participation. Jimmy O’Donnell, for instance, is asked if Lafferty’s widow, Kathleen, pays her bills on time and how long Lafferty stayed on a vacation to the United States. Two responses, and you’ve moved the piece along unscathed. Most of those “picked on” usually have only to nod assent or raise a glass — oh, there’s are glasses, and bottles — in toast or approval. The greedy undertaker, Johnny Boyle, can laugh with the audience as Kathleen tells how he demanded every pound for Charlie’s funeral in advance, and the audience jeers at his audacity.

Turlish bothered to write a story rather than a framing scenario around which silly comic bits can be built. You learn a lot about Charlie, the Laffertys, and the folks in Ballyslattery. You can stay in your seat and hear the triumphs and travails of being Charlie’s wife or the benefit of being his friend. Turlish puts texture in her narrative, so there’s some real sentiment among among the jabber and the fluff. When Mark Knight appears to reminisce and philosophize elegiacally as the late Lafferty, his marvelous voice and heartfelt readings actually turn LAFFERTY’S WAKE lyrical and give it moments of admirable beauty.

Deen Kogan made her reputation by producing the plays that were avant garde in the ’60s. I saw my first Genet, Beckett, Ionesco, Friel, Kopit, and Albee at the Society Hill Playhouse. But Deen learned the value of a commercial success with the long-running production of Nunsense. LAFFERTY’S WAKE is in the Nunsense mode. No one is aiming for high art or insight into the human condition.

But you don’t have to be Irish or Catholic to enjoy Turlish’s humor. She sticks stolidly to the tried-and-true without letting it become clichéd and has a knack for composing her own little witticisms. Jason Eric Klemm is a fine ringmaster. His Rory Finn roosts behind his pub’s bar and chimes in when he can add to a story and comes forward when it’s time to change the show’s pace or involve the audience in a game.

Caitlin Catanella is sharp as Kathleen, Charlie’s widow. She keeps things moving smoothly, graciously, and humorously while Jeff Baxt pitches in as the parish priest that has a walloping piece of news for the mourners and the audience regarding Charlie’s imminent burial. I would estimate “Lafferty’s Wake” to be 95 percent scripted, with Catanella, and Baxt, and especially Klemm provided most of the ad libbing and doing it deftly. Daniel Irwin and Madison Auch, who do a fine job with their characters as written, rarely venture past the fourth wall to do more than invite the crowd to sing. Kelly Boeckle, who plays Charlie’s good ladyfriend, Molly Greaney, also tends to stick to her part, which is the catalyst for the tensest situation in the play.

Tina Marie Heinze wisely sticks to basics in dressing the LAFFERTY’S cast. No set designer is listed, but the simplicity of the playing spaces and efficiency oi prop placement helps move the show along. Read the full review >>>
[Society Hill Playhouse, 507 S. 8th Street] October 16-December 20, 2015;

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