|L-R: Tricia Small, Stef Tovar, and Tim Ransom in NO WAKE. Photo by Carol Rosegg.|
Rebecca (Tricia Small) is a sexually aggressive, manipulative woman – apparently most comfortable when she is literally and figuratively “on top” - who succeeded in seducing Nolan (Stef Tovar) several years ago. But just look at what it got her: an unintended pregnancy which resulted in the birth of her daughter, Sukey (a psychologically damaged girl from whom she has long been estranged); an unhappy marriage to Nolan (Sukey’s father), a relatively indecisive, passive and defeatist individual, who ultimately abandoned her; and, eventually, a bitter divorce. Rebecca has moved on since then to her second marriage to Padgett (Tim Ransom) – an Englishman as weak-willed as his predecessor but with a somewhat amusing British veneer, who sees himself, probably correctly, as “lacking,” “deficient,” and “less than fifty percent man.” Nolan has moved on too, but to nothing more than a series of trivial relationships.
Under ordinary circumstances, Rebecca and Nolan might never have seen each other again but the circumstances in No Wake by William Donnelly, currently enjoying its New York premiere at 59E59 Theaters on East 59th Street in midtown Manhattan, are decidedly not ordinary: Sukey has committed suicide and her parents are now in the process of arranging her funeral and memorial service (there is to be no wake not only because Catholics don’t do wakes for suicides but also because Sukey apparently had specified at some time that she never wanted a wake) and to sort through the remnants of her life.
There is probably no tragedy that parents can experience that is any worse than the suicide of a child and it would be reasonable, I imagine, for one to have expected that, in the course of this play, we would be treated to an exploration, or at least a depiction, of the emotional toll that such a tragic event can take. Indeed, in the play’s press release, we are told that when Rebecca and Nolan “are forced to confront an unspeakable tragedy, they must navigate their complicated feelings of guilt, relief and grief” and we are assured that “acidically funny and brutally honest, No Wake unpacks the grieving process and the aftermath that death brings to those left behind.”
But to my mind, the play did no such thing, falling far short of the incisive analysis of Sukey and of her parents that we had been led to expect. We don’t really discover why Sukey so hated her parents that she opted to estrange herself from them, let alone why she committed suicide. We don’t learn much about the relationship between Rebecca and either of her two husbands either. And we’re left high and dry in making sense of Rebecca and Nolan’s reaction to Sukey’s death or even to one another after the fact.
What we do learn, however, is that the play’s title is just too clever by half: ostensibly it refers not only to the decision not to hold a wake for Sukey but also to the fact that Rebecca, Nolan and Padgett are consistently reluctant to act decisively (don’t make waves, leave no wake – get it?)
At one point late in the play, Padgett confides in Nolan about the failure of his first marriage (pre-Rebecca) and says that “where I should have boiled, I evaporated.” And that, unfortunately, was my reaction to this play itself: where it should have boiled, it evaporated.
It is at least possible, however, that I am being somewhat unfair to the playwright. Perhaps it actually was his intention, all along, to show that different people may react to tragedies in different ways and that even in the case of a tragic suicide such as this, some parents may experience nothing more than numbness. If so, he did succeed. But, unfortunately, it led to something of a numbness in me as well and I doubt if that could possibly have been his intent.