There’s a new theater company in Tacoma, and it’s offering mesmerizing theater in an unusual space. Tacoma Actors Repertory Theater, a small professional company focusing on intimate, thought-provoking plays, has set up shop in a big downstairs room at the back of the historic Tacoma Armory building.
Its first production, Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Three Viewings,” tells three small-town funeral-home tales with consummate skill.
Of course, “Three Viewings” is a smart way to kick off a new company. Three separate monologues, each half-an-hour long and needing minimal sets and ensemble rehearsal — it’s an obvious choice. Yet the three actors and director Jen Tidwell do far-from-predictable things with Hatcher’s sublimely eloquent, conversational prose, turning these three funeral viewings into three captivating stories about love and death, with both sweet comedy and a bittersweet twist.
First up, and most convincing, is Richard Arum as Emil, funeral director in small-town Pennsylvania who falls head-over-heels into the most adorable puppy-love ever, only to have it turn back on him with a devastating irony. Like the other two actors, Arum handled what was surely an awkward, disappointing audience of just four people last Friday night with professional surety, turning his declaration, exploration and confession of love into a highly personal experience. With finely controlled body language (goofy knock-knees) and smooth transitions from reflection to narration (eye direction, pace), he drew his audience spellbound into the rollercoaster ride of a crush.
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Next was Hollis Heron, a little more nervous and with not quite as good a balance between breaking the fourth wall and creating it, but still amusing as Mac, the high-living socialite who finances her lifestyle by robbing corpses — including that of her own grandmother. Hollis’ pacing is well-timed, though her extremes of emotion aren’t so convincing, and the final revelation felt a little hollow.
Gretchen Douma, however, as the final “Viewing” — the ditzy Virginia who suddenly realizes her late husband died deep in debt — is splendid, hamming up the jokes about her husband’s tongue-tiedness and her daughter’s literary pretension while creating a deep well of suffering and worry under the cheerful façade. Like Arum, Douma has a gift for bringing Hatcher’s other characters — the ones we only hear about through the single actor’s narrative — to delightful life: the wanna-be writer daughter, the pompous brother, the small-town mafia man and the gabby friend who ends up saving the day with a lovely plot twist.
Throughout, Tidwell’s skilled but restrained hand gave unity and architecture to the monologues, with some nicely-structured lighting adding drama (though some irritating long shadows). And the space — refurbished and painted black — worked well for small theater, the eight columns framing but not confining.
Next week, Tacoma Actors Rep opens “(title of show,)” a comedy musical about two guys writing a musical, to run in alternation with “Three Viewings” in the standard repertory manner. Each has around 13 performances; whether this is too much for Tacoma, home of many fallen theater groups, remains to be seen.
But the simple fact is that this is the best theater seen in Tacoma for a long time. It’s thoughtful, simple, deep and personal, touching lightly but intensely on those things which we all, ultimately, have to figure out: love, death and human connection.
Who: Tacoma Actors Repertory Theater.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 21, 23, 29, Nov. 4 and 6; 2 p.m. Oct. 24, Nov. 1 and 7.
Where: Armory Building (back and downstairs), 715 S. 11th St., Tacoma.
Tickets: $25 general, $22.50 student and senior (Saturday show is just $10).
Also: Runs alternate weeks with “(title of show)”.