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How many times has the question “How are you?” or “Are you OK” been asked and “I’m fine” been answered when clearly that is not the case? I think it is safe to say that a majority of us have had this short conversation. “I’m fine” is often a dismissal, a way to cut off any further probing by another into uncomfortable feelings. It is also a way to cut oneself off from those feelings, and is the expression of a wish rather than a fact. Repeating “I’m fine” almost as a mantra is an attempt to close the door on anger, sadness, and grief.
Alleyway Theatre’s fine new play, “I’m Fine,” a world premiere written and directed by Neal Radice, is inspired by “conversations and correspondence with Herb Knoll, author of The Widower’s Journey,” a book that helps break down the barriers that keep men from recovering after the death of their spouses.
The play takes a middle-aged man from the day of his dead wife’s “viewing” at a funeral home to one-and-a-half-years later as he journeys through his grief at the loss of his partner of thirty-three years. As somber as this may sound, the play has many moments of levity, some of them even of the laugh-out-loud variety, and a quality of gentle understanding that is very engaging.
The stage is bare save for a large rectangular black wooden box that serves as various chairs in various houses, a backyard, and offices; a bed in a bedroom; and seats in a car and a truck. A large screen backdrop has images of the location in which each short scene takes place. The bare set allows total focus on the dialogue between the actors and leaves no doubt as to where they are. In short, there is no distraction from the conversations that take place; sixteen of them altogether, in under two hours.
Ray Boucher is Mike, a 55-year-old truck driver with one daughter, Allison, a young married woman with two children, played by Emily Yancey. In the first scene, they have just returned from the funeral home. Mike uses his “sardonic wit” and anger to hide his deeper feelings, while Allison is clearly concerned about his bravado and attempts to engage with him in feeling their grief over their loss. He is having none of it, and tells her “I’m fine” over and over again, while at the same time keeping her from leaving by bringing up just one more thing.
As the play unfolds and Mike experiences his grief in all of its different forms, Mr. Boucher is lost, angry, self-destructive, and later bemused at his situation. During scenes with the three women who come into his life, he sits in wonder and confusion at the turn his life has taken, while being fascinated by what he is witnessing.
Joyce Stilson hilariously plays the three women, all widows who are seeking a companion to share their lives. And while they are all very funny, sometimes bizarrely so, in terms of the play itself, they seemed too broadly drawn, caricatures really, rather than real women who are doing their best in awkward situations. The other characters in the play feel like real people who could be any one of us, so the presence of these over-the-top women, while entertaining, feels a bit jarring. However, I must tell you that we were all laughing out loud during these scenes.
Which are very different from scene four in which Mike and his friend, Fred, played with great humor by James Cichocki, are just two guys sitting in Mike’s back yard drinking beer and talking about being laid off from work. Fred is also a widower and tells Mike about the secret widower’s club to which they now both belong, which has no meetings. This is very funny and bittersweet dialogue and gives us insight into what these men go through, most often alone, and with no way to express their true feelings. Mr. Cichocki also plays Dr. Knoller, a Clinical Psychologist. His sessions with Mike ring true, as he helps Mike maneuver through his feelings and the events in his life.
Ms. Yancy does superbly as she attempts to help her father while dealing with her own grief and taking care of her family. She is kind, loving and clearly adores him, but also is strong enough to confront him when she deems it necessary.
This is a lovely play about loss and how we cope with it by Mr. Radice. It gives us insight into the lives of men who are often isolated and culturally discouraged from expressing feelings deeper than anger. But it also defines a path to healing, through love, friendship, and the willingness to risk looking deeper into oneself.
Kudos to Mr. Radice and his fine cast. And that “fine” is a fact, not a wish.
Thu Apr 20th → Sat May 13th
Days: Thu, Fri, Sat
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