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A Name For A Ghost To Mutter

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - November 14, 2016

Emily Verla, Christa Kimlicko Jones, Kathleen Huber,
Rachel Caplan, and David Volin
Photo by James M. Wilson

A Southern Gothic breeze wafts gently through playwright Cyndi Williams's haunted family saga, A Name For A Ghost To Mutter, a production of Theatre East having its New York premiere at Urban Stages. But don't expect an evening of dark romance and dreadful secrets. This is a most genteel ghost story, more like one of Horton Foote's wistful memory plays than anything that might have been conjured up by Flannery O'Connor.

The ghost in question is Lala (Emily Verla), who is bound to her home in Oklahoma where her family has gathered after her funeral to clear out her possessions. It seems she has some unfinished business to take care of before she is free to leave the world behind.

The year is 1999. Time, however, is fluid. Throughout the evening we will be making stops across the entire range of the twentieth century, as letters, photographs, and, most of all, the memories of Lala's cousin Lucretia (Kathleen Huber) bring forth four generations of deceased family members, all women, the bearers of the stories that bind them together.

Lucretia is astonished to find herself, at age 60, to be the keeper of the flame, with no else alive who remembers her as a child. Her own brood, daughters Maud (Rachel Caplan) and Julie (Christa Kimlicko Jones), and son Augie (David Volin) show little interest as she digs up the past, particularly as she tends to repeat herself with some frequency. Only Lala, ever present, seems to listen.

Both Lala and Lucretia were raised by a reluctant caregiver, an aunt who took them in separately as each was orphaned. They were always close, and you could say it is these ties that keep Lala bound to her home. But there is more purpose to Lala's presence, having to do with a fairly large sum of money that keeps turning up in batches in various drawers, closets, handbags, and other hiding places.

While the siblings debate what to do with the money, the past continues to intrude. What gradually reveals itself is a portrait of generations of women who have endured the hardships imposed upon them by virtue of their gender and the subservient and dependent roles they were pressed into playing with respect to the men in their lives. Only Lala tried to break out of the mold, when, in 1946 at the age of 18, she married on a whim a much older man, known as B. (Tom Green), who showered her with the material goods she craved but provided her with little affection. We mostly see them together at their regular restaurant, where B. decides what Lala will eat and where they are served always by the same waiter (Ryan George), whose interactions with them take on some significance.

There is a lovely denouement in which Lala's ghost manages to make her final wishes known. But more than anything, A Name For A Ghost To Mutter is a delicate short story of a play and a portrait of a family (the cast is joined by Lori Fischer and Kelly Kunkel as ancestors). There is some bickering among the siblings, but no great outbursts, accusations, or shocking revelations. And even their mother's repeated tales about their relatives' eccentricities and troubled lives garner little more than rolled eyes. If there is a sad thought to all of this, it is that once Lucretia dies, the stories are likely to be lost forever.

The able cast is skillfully directed by Judson Jones, and the use of carefully detailed touches makes for a lovingly imagined production. In one scene, for example, Julie finds and puts on one of Lala's old designer dresses. Later we see Lala wearing that same dress when it was new (great costume design by Sherry Martinez). Special credit must go to John D. Ivy for his exceptional and seamless sound design (banging pipes, a ticking clock, music), which provides the perfect mood for this wisp of a ghost story.

A Name For A Ghost To Mutter
Through November 26
Urban Stages, 259 West 30th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Theatre East

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