In the new “Reading the Obits: A Comedy,” Wichita playwright Mary Lou Phipps-Winfrey demonstrates a flair with amusing dialogue that’s easy, breezy and naturalistic rather than forced into calculated one-liners or puns (well, maybe a couple).
Her conversations sound like those that real people would have. The topics are mostly familiar — love, sex, gossip, regrets (or lack thereof) — but even when they reach outside the box, they have a comfortable authenticity. These folks could be your next-door neighbors. And if they were, you’d enjoy them thoroughly.
Phipps-Winfrey seems as comfortable with the back-and-forth interchange between two men teaching each other to dance as with heart-to-hearts between a mother and daughter, a husband and wife, a boyfriend and girlfriend or the giggly, conspiratorial repartee among a circle of longtime gal pals.
This original comedy, premiering at Wichita Community Theatre, is fun and entertaining, but also insightful into the difference between life plans (practical, steady, comfortable) and life dreams (unpredictable, scary, exciting) and how people ultimately want to be remembered. As one character notes: “I don’t think anybody cares what school I graduated from or how many groups I belonged to. I want them to know who I was and what I was like.”
At the heart of the tale is Ellen (played with engaging charm by Beth Wise), a middle-aged wife and mom who suddenly has become fascinated with newspaper obituaries of strangers. These cryptic mini-biographies, she says, inspire her to read between the lines and imagine what their lives — and loves — may have been like.
Her loving and patient husband, Gene (lanky, easy-going Bob Lancaster), thinks her “hobby” is sort of eccentric but harmless. But her college student daughter, Sam (sharp, perky Molly Tully), pronounces it “morbid,” “creepy” and “vampirish.”
Even Ellen’s close circle of friends ridicule the idea — until she sparks their curiosity and opens the door to communication about uneasy topics like death, funerals and memorials. Ellen forces them — well, gives them permission — to open up and reflect on their own lives, values, accomplishments, dreams and ultimate legacies.
Playing those friends, who often seem designed as silly but lovable comic foils to Ellen’s straight woman, are Zoe Burgess as Simone, a self-centered single who pampers herself at every turn; Dona Lancaster as Doris, who takes everything to the delicious and absurd extreme; Gina Bryant as June, a go-along, get-along peacemaker who seems afraid to take a stand; and Virginia Morgan as Martha, whose grandson has become the center of her universe, causing her to get down on the floor to play even when she can’t then get up.
Filling out the cast are Don Wineke as Ed, Ellen’s neighbor and Martha’s chef husband, who secretly wanted to be an artist rather than a cook; and Richard Sparks as Kurt, a solid, steady but perhaps a little dull business student who wants to marry Ellen’s journalism major daughter if he can get her to just settle down rather than dreaming of glamorous international assignments and Pulitzer Prizes.
Phipps-Winfrey directs her own tale with a steady assured pace that lets the lines unfold gracefully and then moves on rather than lingering too long and overplaying their cleverness. Performances opening night were strong and prepared, with the circle of gal pals (my guilty pleasure) stealing the show with their playfulness every time they got together over a glass of wine.
My only concern is that the ending came a bit too abruptly and shifted the focus away from the main character, almost like an afterthought. I would hope that playwright Phipps-Winfrey revisits the final scene at some future point and adds enough to bring it full circle back to Ellen and the intriguing door she has opened in all our minds.