So . . . By the Sea Productions in Morro Bay has proven itself successful at extracting stones from the mines of suitable community theatre plays, then cutting and polishing little gems to deliver to us with panache and, always, heart.
Such is the case with The Cemetery Club by Ivan Menchell, a comedy of friendship, love, and companionship based on that most universal of life’s gifts, grief.
Three Jewish widows, Ida (Jean Miller), Lucille (Debora Schwartz), and Doris (Laurelle Barnett-Kelty), banter about their lives, loves, and losses, making once-a-month pilgrimages to their husbands’ graves. Hilarity ensues, as they say, after Ida decides that grieving might not preclude getting on with her life.
The local butcher Sam (Russell Snow) and another woman, Mildred (Janice Peters), play large and small roles, respectively, in Ida’s quest to uncover some happiness in her time left on earth. While comedy is the main focus of the two-and-a-quarter-hour (with intermission) show, director Ania Schwaber doesn’t shy away from letting her actors remind us of a grave reality: time is fleeting. Miller, Schwartz, and Barnett-Kelty all display palpable warmth and sympathy in their performances—Schwartz even finding generosity and vulnerability in the brazen, self-assured Lucille (who with her shenanigans collects much of the audience’s laughter).
Miller is a kind-hearted and understandably conflicted Ida. Barnett-Kelty plays Doris with reserve but also a comedic timing that delivers the occasional knock-out (sometimes with lines like “You feel alone? You get a dog, not an Italian” and sometimes with body language alone). The play delivers its wisdom and advice in small doses, and Snow measures out his doses with warmth and character-driven empathy (his character sagely offers up life as “one chapter after another, waiting to be written”).
The show moves back and forth between Ida’s home and the cemetery, both admirably accommodated on the small stage in St. Peter’s by the Sea Episcopal Church Hall, the home of By the Sea Productions. The proximity of the sets and the stage to the audience, as well as the sincere and heart-felt services of cast, crew, and volunteers, serve as a reminder that community theatre provides an active, intimate, and ultimately satisfying connection for audiences.
In the little gem that is The Cemetery Club, spend a couple of hours enjoying some of the best that local community theatre has to offer.