Arts & Culture

July 15, 2012

Obituaries help illuminate lives in new play

Mary Lou Phipps-Winfrey doesn’t see anything morbid or creepy about reading newspaper obituaries of people she never met.

Mary Lou Phipps-Winfrey doesn’t see anything morbid or creepy about reading newspaper obituaries of people she never met.

And in a new play that she’s written during the past two years, which premieres Thursday at Wichita Community Theatre, 258 N. Fountain, she’s determined to convince the audience that these mini-bios are celebrations rather than ho-hum history.

Even more, she wants to spark your curiosity — like hers.

“I’ve read obits for a long time, and I find that ones that give glimpses into their personalities and dreams and adventures add so much, especially if you didn’t know them personally,” said Phipps-Winfrey, a familiar name and face on local stages since the 1970s.

“They spark my imagination to fill in the gaps about what the people were really like,” she said. “I remember reading about a woman who was described as ‘a poet and an artist’ and thought how wonderful it would be to have known her. Another one said ‘God needed a good accountant.’ What a charming way to say what she did. It made me want to know more.”

The result is “Reading the Obits: A Comedy,” in which the central figure is a middle-aged woman whose hobby of reading strangers’ obits and imagining what they were like is greeted by mixed reactions from her husband, daughter and circle of friends.

“Her daughter thinks it’s creepy, and her friends are divided on whether it’s ‘vampirish’ or ‘interesting,’ ” said Phipps-Winfrey, who also is directing. “The upshot is that it causes them all to wonder what their own obits might say one day and whether those final words would reflect what they want people to know about them. It causes them to examine how circumstances changed their own dreams and whether, while they still have time, they would change anything.”

Phipps-Winfrey said she purposely added “A Comedy” to the title to reassure people that the play is not about doom, death and despair.

“It’s not a downer. There are huge laughs and a lot of smiles,” she said. “It’s all about celebrating ordinary people who do interesting things.”

Beth Wise plays Ellen, a homemaker and cookbook author, who is the curious obit reader invariably imagining and projecting between the lines. Bob Lancaster is her witty banker husband, Gene.

Molly Tully is their daughter Samantha (“Sam”), a college journalism student who is conflicted about her future and uneasy about Mom’s hobby. Richard Sparks is Kurt, Sam’s easy-going boyfriend and MBA grad student who is ready to settle down when she gives the word.

Don Wineke and Virginia Morgan are Ed and Martha, a retired chef and dancer, who are best friends with Ellen and Gene. Making up Ellen’s circle of lady friends are Zoe Burgess as sharp-tongued fashion maven Simone, Dona Lancaster as funny but frazzled Doris, and Gina Bryant as practical-minded but naive June.

“The characters get to talking about how they started out with a dream and how things changed due to problems or obstacles that got in the way,” Phipps-Winfrey said. “They have to ask themselves if, despite changes, they are fulfilled? And, if not, what are they going to do about it?”

The talk leads them to consider their own future obits.

“I know my own dreams have changed as things happened. As a student, I was sure I wanted to be a wife and mother of four, and to teach high school speech and drama,” said Phipps-Winfrey, who grew up in Missouri and came to Wichita in the 1970s because of her husband’s career move.

“But I had a passion for theater that took me beyond teaching into performing, first at Cape Cod, then in San Francisco and then in New York, where I joined Equity (actors’ union) and SAG (Screen Actors Guild). I didn’t do anything gargantuan, but I did more than a lot. I came back to Wichita in the 1990s.”

Since then, she has worked with most local theaters, particularly Wichita Center for the Arts and Wichita Community Theatre.

“Yes, I have thought about my own obit. I suppose people would be interested in when and where I was born for genealogy purposes. But I can’t imagine that many people would care where I went to school or what sort of degree I have,” she said.

“I would rather people know what I was like and what I did with my life. Nothing would be off-limits because I won’t be around to protest,” Phipps-Winfrey said with a laugh. “I just want people to read it and say, ‘Well, I’ll be…’ ”

While there’s nothing objectionable in the show, the playwright/director said that topics and themes would be over the head of children, who could become restless.

Set is by Mark Anderson, with lights by Jackie Donahue, sound by Mark Schuster, costumes and set decoration by Jane Tanner and props by Sally Pedruzzi. Dana Womack is Phipps-Winfrey’s directorial assistant.

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