By John Quinn
Metaphorically speaking, we all go through life wearing different hats. I, for instance, am better known as a habitual barfly than I am as a critical gadfly. It’s always a pleasure when going to the theater to find artists competent in many different disciplines. So consider one Harry Wetzel, who, early in his career, was the “go-to” actor for comedy in this burg. Lately, we’ve enjoyed his talents as scenic artist and production manager at the Detroit Repertory Theatre, where this season he knocked out a simple and functional set for “Engagement Rules,” followed by an “order out of chaos” approach for “Burying the Bones.” Oh, he also directs. The world premiere of James McLindon’s “Dead and Buried” is the Rep’s current offering, and it has Wetzel’s fingerprints all over it. That’s a good thing.
“Dead and Buried” is a quirky play, and not just because it’s set in a cemetery. Part comedy, part drama, part mystery, it features three fresh, engaging characters but a rather thin plot.” Predictable” is the wrong word, but a savvy audience can stay one step ahead of the playwright. There are a lot of insightful passages on the nature of death and dying, but it takes interesting actors to play them properly. Fortunately, director and cast have richly filled out the characters.
Bid is the manager of an old cemetery somewhere in New England. She has a unique past; an ex-leatherneck, she served in a Mortuary Affairs Unit, searching the war zone for the shredded remains of combat troopers. Her horrific experiences, trying to prepare remains for proper burial, have given Bid an unusual sensitivity to the needs of those left behind. She hires 18-year-old Perdue, a woman with a hidden agenda. For Robbie, Bid’s other employee, an introduction to Perdue is lust at first sight. A common theme of loss unites the characters, but the parallels between Bid and Perdue are quite strong. Each seeks closure; each tries a different route. One woman is successful; one woman will find the courage to continue.
Another multiple hat-wearer, Charlotte Leisinger takes the role of crusty Bid. She is back on the stage after directing the beautifully rendered “Looking for the Pony” for the Rep last season. Another “Pony” alum, Lulu Dahl, plays Perdue. Their performances are solid and their chemistry is spot-on. But it’s Benjamin J. Williams job to portray what might be the playwright’s favorite character, Robbie. He has the bulk of the funny lines and takes the edge off the “grave” plot. Williams doesn’t miss a beat.
There is one problem – opening night had a very sizeable audience. That may have changed the acoustics in the theater from what was experienced in rehearsal, because a few words and lines were inaudible.
When (not if) you see “Dead and Buried,” pay attention to the incidental music. There’s an impish ear at work in these choices, whether it belongs to sound designer Burr Huntington, director Harry Wetzel or a happy collaboration (two ears are better than one!). Edvard Grieg seems a natural choice, but I don’t know how long it’s been since I’ve heard P.D.Q. Bach!
‘Dead and Buried’
Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson, Detroit. Thursday-Sunday through May 20; no performances April 8. 115 minutes. $17-20. 313-868-1347. http://www.detroitreptheatre.com