Laughter -- the rolling kind that comes in waves and never stops -- is the sweetest sound an actor can hear. It's great for the audience, too; it transforms a group of strangers into a community sharing an event. That kind of laughter fills the Grandel Theatre throughout the St. Louis Black Repertory Company's production of The Dance on Widows' Row, a lightweight but entertaining play by Samm-Art Williams that shows off the ample comedic skills of the talented ensemble.
The widows of the title are four friends of a certain age in Port Town, N.C., who have buried nine husbands among them (the total for their street is 20). Rumors abound; even the friends have their suspicions of how each other's ex-husbands met their fates. Now every eligible man in town is afraid to even venture onto their infamous street, and the women are anxious for companionship; a little sex wouldn't be bad, either. With loneliness as their motivation, the women go to extremes to trap their men, and the men don't seem to mind a bit.
Director Ron Himes builds the story step by step as we meet the characters, all of whom are drawn in broad strokes by Williams with lots of help from costume designer Daryl Harris, whose outrageous contributions are as integral to the comedy as the writing and acting. As Magnolia, Denise Thimes grounds the play emotionally, sympathetically expressing the unwanted solitude that prompts her to invite some of the menfolk over for an old-fashioned Southern get-together with her and her fellow widows: Sandra Mills-Scott as the bewigged, conceited actress Simone ("Tina Turner on a budget," as someone calls her); the earthy Lois (Lisa Harris), whose chicken wings everyone wants to avoid (both her husbands died of food poisoning); and the straitlaced holy roller Annie (Mimi Ayers). As soon as Annie thumps her Bible and swears off the pleasures of the flesh, we know, of course, that she'll be all over the men in no time; Williams delivers in an even bigger way than we expect, and Ayers' transformation of Annie is one of the crowd-pleasing highlights of the evening.
You won't hear the first five lines of dialogue spoken by Levance Madden as Randolph over the shrieks of laughter; his suit and shoes, a shade of green heretofore unseen, bring down the house. When it comes to laughs per minute, though, the winner has to be J. Samuel Davis as the nervous wreck Newly, who reluctantly comes to the widows' party as a favor to his old friend Deacon Hudson (A.C. Smith). Davis, always a delight to watch, ekes a laugh out of every gesture and every line of dialogue. Newly's fear of the widows' reputation is the setup that drives most of the comedy, and when the evening takes a strange turn, his fears seem to have come true.
In the second act, the infectious laughter is virtually nonstop but, strangely, reaches its crescendo too early. Just when the play should be hurtling toward its climax, playwright Williams falters. The last 15 minutes are overwritten and bring the story to an unsatisfying ending that not only undercuts the friendships of the characters but lets down the cast, who deserve stronger material to work with at the end of an otherwise hilarious evening.