I am the worst possible audience for Samm-Art Williams' The Dance on Widow's Row. The play is a comedy about a quartet of widows on the downward side of middle age, each of them borderline desperate to catch another husband. Still in my young middle age, not a widow and having arrived at the theater from two real-life funerals in as many days, I was unlikely to find much here to make me laugh.
But I did not reckon with the determined optimism of Magnolia Ellis (Sandra Mills-Scott). Mag, as she's known to friends, set me straight early on. Having buried a pair of husbands and living on the street known as Widow's Row in deference to the unnatural number of dead husbands who formerly called the Row home Mag opens her house for the evening, hoping a successful party (i.e., no male deaths) will dispel the macabre reputation that hangs over the street. A nice get-together should also help her jump-start her own love life, as she has invited the most promising bachelors in all of Port Town, among them Newly Benson (Erik Kilpatrick), Randolph Spears (Dennis Lebby) and Deacon Hudson (A.C. Smith). Being a generous soul, she also invites her widowed friends, Simone "Simi" Jackson (Linda Kennedy), Annie Talbot (Susie Wall) and Lois Miller (Lisa Harris), to share in the bounty.
Before the men arrive, the women sit around and discuss what has brought them to this point. With four notches on her marital garter, Annie has turned to God for comfort; she's a prim and priggish busybody. Simi is brassy and self-confident, a former actress who resents her quiet little hometown; her husband was an elderly man who came home to die, and she longs to return to New York. Lois is ebullient and warm and she puts the va-voom in vivacious; both of her husbands died of food poisoning, a fact her friends still tease her about. Mag is the de facto leader of the group, setting the tone for the evening with her easy charm and that glowing optimism. While her friends fret and carp, Mag, with a beaming smile and equal measures of prodding and cajoling, convinces us all that her party will bear fruit.
Williams' script then idles for a good while: The women talk, and the men don't show up, scared off by the ladies' reputation as husband killers. At first the dialogue is quick and snappy, as the women crack on one another, discuss the monetary benefits of widowhood, debate the merits of relationships versus sexual need and, ultimately, give in to the realization that they will be spending another evening without male company. "Most great women end up alone," Simi announces with bravado.
But what happens when the bravado falters? Director Ron Himes gives the cast plenty of space to convey the growing sadness wordlessly: The lights dim, the women grow silent and music plays. To see these women all of them intelligent, beautiful, charming, well-off and achingly lonely in this exposed moment is to face up to the fear that lingers behind all funerals: Not that someday we die, but that we may have to go on alone in the world before we do. As the women sit, their crestfallen faces betray the tremendous stakes of the dance.
Then the men do show up and the party truly starts.
In a cast loaded with exceptional performers, Erik Kilpatrick's portrayal of Newly is remarkable. Jittering with nervous energy, Newly vacillates between his fear of being killed at the widows' party and his desire for female company. He has the preponderance of great lines in the script, but Kilpatrick could and does generate belly laughs through nothing more than his explosive reactions.
The denouement requires a shock, which it would be unforgivable to reveal. Suffice to say that Williams' keen ear for dialogue is matched by his keen eye for verisimilitude: Not everyone gets what they want (just like in the real world). But everybody, characters and audience alike, has a good time, shares some laughs and leaves feeling better than they did when the curtain went up.