Shopping for new entertainment?
Tucked amid stores selling baubles, bangles, and bath beads — in fact, right next door to the Bath & Body Works at Lakeforest Mall in Gaithersburg — is a hole-in-the-wall theater whose mission is to cultivate local culture.
Best Medicine Rep’s Prepping for Widowhood, a freshly minted play by Rob Dames, follows four seasoned friends in their 70s lamenting the loss of their husbands — even prematurely, as a couple of the guys are still alive — and questioning what to do with their remaining time.
The answer is mostly to drink Manhattans and rib one another. But nestled in the script, which could use some refinement of its own, is the message that it’s never too late to reinvent oneself.
The setting is the St. Louis apartment of Virginia Doyle (Jane Petkofsky), an Irish Catholic matron in the winter of her discontent, five years into widowhood. It’s her birthday season and her turn to host the foursome’s quarterly bridge game. Each of these golden gals represents a different season of the year (although it’s up to the audience to assign the other three).
Petkofsky appropriately projects an icy conservatism — destined to melt. Betty (Carol Randolph) “springs” into action, serving as an antagonist, setting the agenda and challenging the crew to assess their pasts and plan for a vibrant future, once all their Misters have kicked. Thelma (Liz Weber) brings the summer sizzle, which leaves autumn for Margaret (Dolly Turner), a retired concert pianist who still makes the rounds entertaining at nursing homes. Paradoxically, in an appeal to add relevance to widowhood, Virginia is encouraged to try online dating and fill the void with … another man.
Adding narrative tension are Anne (Mariel Penberthy), Virginia’s irksome daughter with all the best laugh lines, and handyman Joe (Don Myers), a natural onstage who invites the audience into his comfort zone — no easy trick, considering this shotgun stage was once filled with aisles of shoes.
The ghosts of that shoe store inventory are on display in mall-inspired costume design by Elizabeth Kemmerer. Virginia is pure Ann Taylor. Daughter Anne? More Boho Beach Hut. Margaret, though meek in manner, turns up the volume with Chico ensembles and loud costume jewelry. Betty sports TJ Maxx and sensible flats. And Thelma, the wild child in animal prints, defies death in heels — in the heart of winter — and shows off her Forever 21 shape in leather pants riddled with zippers. Part of the fun for female patrons might be projecting which archetype best fits their future selves, like one of those data-mining online quizzes.
And which of us wouldn’t choose Thelma? Weber is phenomenal, even with material that at times rings hollow or exposes patriarchal freight. Luminescent and electric, she adds an authenticity that obviates the need for dialogue. Simple acts like stealing a taste of cake icing or doffing her coat define her. While lines from other characters land as indistinguishable musings gathered in a maypole dance, Thelma’s voice stands alone — and indiscreet.
As Joe, Myers also impresses with a lean realism: fixing a garbage disposal, serving coffee, sitting backward on a chair. Where there’s no door, he manages to outline the threshold. He’s easy to “get.”
Director Catherine Aselford grants her players full rein of the awkward space, choreographing Weber’s foxy trot, Penberthy’s foot-stomping impertinence, Turner’s halting confusion. It’s Theater in the Oblong, and the players move about equitably, from a lace-cloth-covered dining set that doubles as card table to a modestly appointed parlor and upstage to the kitchen, anchored by a double-wide fridge. Despite that massive appliance, set designer Ali Mark proves less is more, connecting the dots with a craft store crucifix, a battered coffee maker, the catch-all buffet bearing spirits, and a portrait of saintly Francis, Virginia’s dearly departed soulmate with whom she still converses.
If you’re thinking this show might be fodder for your next book club huddle, fair warning: Despite its proximity to suds supplies, it’s far from Calgon-take-me-away escapist comedy. Parts are indulgent, even depressing, though it’s ultimately designed to recalibrate a journeyer’s compass. One serendipitous moment comes when Virginia scolds the gals to stop meddling in her private affairs: “I suggest you all grow up and let me lead my own life. Is that clear?” Her wise friend Margaret and teacher-daughter Anne each echo “Clear!” “Clear!” We feel we’ve been jolted by a defibrillator — a necessary reset, the payoff in any live theater experience.
Precisely what you’d expect from a risk-taking troupe called Best Medicine Rep. Now in its fifth season, it subscribes to comedy that, according to its promotional materials, “can make us laugh and make us cry. It can bring joy and it can bring anger. It makes us think and makes us forget. It exalts and ridicules. It can divert, and it can focus. Comedy levels life’s playing field.”
For this production, artistic director John Morogiello designed the dead-on sound — phones, notifs, machinery, and soundtrack are all delightfully synced — but he’s the first to admit the HVAC unit gets a tad noisy in this new space. And the actors aren’t mic’d. Still, it’s comforting, during a pandemic, to know the air is circulating.
So come on out and make some noise because, in this COVID-era mall of the apocalypse, it’s ladies’ night.
Running Time: Just shy of two hours, including a 10-minute intermission.
Prepping for Widowhood plays weekends through October 17, 2021, at Best Medicine Rep, now located on the lower level of Lakeforest Mall, 701 Russell Avenue, Gaithersburg, MD, near Macy’s. The mall’s yellow entrance is closest to the theater’s location. For tickets ($25, general admission; $23, seniors), go online.
All patrons must be masked and show proof of either fully vaccinated status or a negative COVID-19 test result within 48 hours of the performance.