The Cemetery Club is a classically structured comedy with heart, so that even though what is going to happen is signalled long before it does it moves you anyway. And it is only right that it should do so, since it’s about one of the most difficult times that has to be faced within older couples: coming to terms with the loss of one’s partner. As such, the play is able to treat death as a reality that needs to be confronted and accommodated, and shows up the absurdity of our society’s desire to shy away from this fact of life.
The story centres around the different ways in which three friends handle widowhood, how they react when that very rare bird a widower enters their lives, and what happens when a glitzy rival comes on the scene. All of this is set where else? in the Jewish quarter of New York. This, of course, is a part of the world that is almost as familiar to us as anywhere in Brisbane, through snappy portrayals on film, television and the stage by the likes of Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Neil Simon, and it turns out the lesser known but equally productive playwright Ivan Menchell (who not only wrote The Cemetery Club, but also has to take some of the credit, or blame, as a writer/producer of The Nanny).
Where it does stray into unfamiliar ground is in the culture of the cemetery, which is the periodic meeting place of the widows who gather there with, as it gradually transpires, varying degrees of enthusiasm to be with their dead husbands, and to tend their graves. Ida (Pat Wockner) wants to move on, Lucille (Mary Woodall) wants to have fun, and Doris (Glynne Liddy) wants to hold on to her memories. The catalyst who brings change into all of their lives is Sam the widower (Paul Liddy), through his evolving relationship with the widows, and by drawing the showy Mildred (Nola Grimshaw) into the equation.
The play works well as an ensemble piece for each of its five, well-defined characters. This is helped in no small measure by the well-oiled teamwork of its cast; which is not surprising when you find out (as I did at interval, of which more later) that, between them, they have clocked up a very respectable number of years as Villanova Players. There is quick recovery from a few fluffed lines, and events move along at a lively pace, with plenty of laughs and some tears along the way. The only unevenness, and what could be regarded as a jarring note, is the matter of accents. If the decision is to deliver the New York Jewish vernacular, then it’s got to be one in, all in, all the time. Otherwise, there is an argument for sticking to home grown speech (as heard in the current production of Art which while set in Paris with much talk of francs did not require its actors to assume French accents). As it is, Wockner mostly does Australian while the others do the New York twang with varying degrees of consistency.
Overall, this doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the production. Especially when that is not the only pleasure vouchsafed the audience from the night’s entertainment. Because, in a sense, what you are getting from the Villanova Players is a play within a play. There is, surrounding it all, the nostalgic feeling of an English village glee club under the baton of Margaret Rutherford or Robert Morley. So it was entirely fitting that the director of the play was seen taking care of business during interval, especially since he was none other than the very recent Matilda winner of the Actors’ Benevolent fund 2001 Award for long-time commitment to Queensland Theatre, Leo Wockner. Who is married to one of the play’s stars, Pat Wockner. Whose co-star and play suitor, Paul Liddy, is married to another co-star, Glynne Liddy, the widow Doris. All in all, then, a group that is truly wedded to the theatre.
As I said, I picked up some of this information at interval, itself a unique theatrical experience that just reinforces the village hall atmosphere. For $2 and 15 minutes there is a convivial supper of wine, soft drinks, tea and coffee, cheese platters and sweet biscuits.
In keeping with the spirit of the Matildas, and their acknowledgment of all of the people responsible for a nice night’s entertainment, it suddenly occurred to me as I was clapping at the end of the show, that there was no good reason why the people behind the scenes should not come on stage to take a bow. Leo Wockner most certainly should have, as should stage manager Cathy Lutvey, and also Noela Smith, especially for her very witty treatment of the outfits for the wedding.
Together with a troupe that performs with great gusto and wears its accumulated years with considerable brio, they are making some important points about ageing at a time when our culture is becoming increasingly youth-oriented.