Ironically Titled “Slabs” Bursts with Life & Sensitivity

Funerals and memorial services are funny things because they are not for the dead.  They are for the living.  It gives people a chance to say good-bye (or good riddance depending on the relationship), to share stories and memories, and to make peace.  These ideas drive Slabs, an original play written by local actress, Kaitlyn McClincy, and presented as a staged reading on Monday and Tuesday at the Shelterbelt Theatre.

Ms McClincy’s script shows a remarkable amount of promise.  It is a well told story (even the stage directions are a nice bit of prose), is well paced, features some strongly developed characters, and has a brilliant twist in the plot.  Throw in some powerful direction and a cast of talented storytellers and you have all the necessary elements for a fine night of theatre.

Noah Diaz, a relative newcomer to directing, has an instinct for direction that seasoned veterans would envy .  He coached some marvelous performances from his cast, set a nice, steady pace, and displayed an intimate understanding of the beats of the script.

Brent Spencer gave a haunting performance as Walter Clarke, the mortician of his small town.  Walter takes his work very seriously.  He is a stickler for rules and procedures, but he also has a great respect for the dead.  Spencer does excellent work in communicating both the firmness and the sensitivity of Walter.  At one moment, Walter will come down on his subordinates for not following protocol, but in the next he will show tender loving care towards the dead by insisting on replacing a beat up suit with a nice one, demanding that the dead be referred to by their names instead of slabs (the medical school nickname for cadavers), or comforting grieving family members of the departed.

Spencer also gives a nice little bit of social awkwardness to Walter.  He is clearly more comfortable around the dead than the living and often makes weak jokes and puns on death.  Walter is also a workaholic who doesn’t have enough time to spend with his family.  This becomes most apparent in the show’s final monologue as Walter grieves over a corpse that has personal significance to him.  Spencer handles the scene beautifully and several members of the audience shed tears during his speech.

Cathy Hirsch and Jonathan Purcell shine as Nancy Dawson, the funeral home’s office manager, and Henry Rollins, Walter’s apprentice.  Ms Hirsch and Mr. Purcell had a spot on chemistry with each other that was essential for the attraction between the two characters.  The two performers had some of the best scenes of the night with their humorous and witty banter.

As Nancy, Ms Hirsch is the more animated and snarky of the two.  Whether she was lamenting a date that was not to be, telling Henry she had a crush on him to see if he was actively listening, or setting a basketball behind the driver’s seat of the hearse to make Henry think a severed head was rolling around, Ms Hirsch made Nancy the life’s blood of the funeral home with her love of living and her sense of humor.

As Henry, Purcell was the yang to Hirsch’s yin.  Henry was a bit more aloof than Nancy and somewhat misanthropic.  He dropped out of med school due to his dislike of dealing with patients.  Instead, Henry entered mortuary sciences due to its formulaic nature and lack of contact with living people.  But Henry also has a wry, even dark, sense of humor evidenced by a practical joke where Henry made Nancy think a corpse had returned to life. Purcell’s knack for comedy served him well as he ably handled the funny dialogue as well as demonstrated his difficulty in dealing with the living when he has an argument with a rude client (played by Ben Thorp).

Matthew Pyle’s turn as Hank Cartwright is tragic and heavy.  The play opens with the death of his son and Hank embodies the sadder side of death.  Pyle’s Hank is so stricken with grief that he is almost numb.  He’s angry at his son for not being a safer driver, angry at the drunk driver who killed his boy, angry at his son’s girlfriend for asking for a ride home that night, and probably angry at himself for not being the husband his wife needs at this sad time.  Hank doesn’t say much, but Pyle is able to say plenty in the silence with skillful reactions and revealing expressions.

Judy Radcliff has a memorable part as Mrs. Withem, who embodies the happier side of death.  Her husband has recently passed and while she is sad, she chooses to remember the good times.  Ms Radcliff’s Mrs. Withem is a talkative sort who is also prone to making bad jokes about death.  Her charm is infectious and talking about the death of her husband and the little things they did to make each other happy is crucial to helping Pyle’s Hank begin to work through his own crushing grief.

Other strong performances came from Connie Lee who played Emily Cartwright, the grieving wife of Hank, Jim McKain, as a pastor with his own doubts, and Lauren Krupski who did an admirable job with the prosey stage directions.  The only flaw, such as it was, in the performances was that some of the actors needed to speak louder and project more.

Although Ms McClincy has written a very solid script, I did see some room for edits.  An extended joke about a clogged toilet seemed unnecessary for the story and an arc focusing on an ungrateful son needed some more development and a more satisfying conclusion.  With that being said, the script does have an immense amount of potential and I would encourage the Shelterbelt to make this a full scale production in the near future, especially with the caliber of direction and acting displayed in the staged reading.

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