CARMEL PLAYWRIGHT Tom Parks’ new play at the Cherry takes a light, engaging look at a heavy subject.
It’s called The Last Word and its charm lies in a group of characters you come to know and like played by a cast who display what Noël Coward famously described as “a talent to amuse.”
We begin in a café where Marge, sixty-something, feisty, warm-hearted and beautiful, is primping for a 47th anniversary dress-up date with her husband Charlie. She’s played by Carol Daly, one of the Peninsula’s finest performers, who is in top acting form and gets the evening off to a good start. Charlie arrives, delightful, devoted and dead on time in the person of Mitch Davis, who manages to keep an incurably kind and understanding character from ever becoming incurably bland and predictable.
Tom Parks writes appealing dialogue, jokey but never self-consciously slick or caustic. Marge and Charlie drink wine and talk at some considerable length about themselves, their successful marriage, their two grown children, Charlie’s business success. The lines and performances are so adroit that we almost overlook the fact that this couple are busy telling each other a lot of facts they already both know—and know they both know. That they are marking the anniversary with a trip down memory lane makes all the exposition borderline believable.
Then Marge tells Charlie something he doesn’t know and we finally learn what this play is going to be about.
A brochure in the lobby says it’s “…a secret revealed that will change their lives forever.” The words suggest Parks doesn’t want audiences told in advance something they should discover by attending the play, so if that’s what you intend to do, you might want to stop reading this review right here.
Not too surprisingly, Marge’s secret is that she’s dying. She has pancreatic cancer, it’s not going to be cured or even, apparently, go into remission. Always live-wire resourceful she has already made an effort to ease Charlie’s forthcoming bereavement by submitting a glowing bio on his behalf to an online dating service. Charlie quickly nips that option in the bud.
While he is out re-parking the car, Marge makes a phone call to their 35-year-old son. Without telling him about her cancer, she pressures him to get himself into a serious romantic relationship and start having children, but he refuses to do anything but continue to play the field.
Act 2 centers in the now bed-ridden Marge’s continuing efforts to set those she loves off on a right sort of road to her demise. She opts for home care in the unpromising form of a ditzy but affectionate care giver named Evie, played with a lot of comic verve by Alyca Tanner. Without telling Charlie, Marge wants the clueless Evie (you wonder how she ever ended up in the homecare industry) to learn a protocol for serving a poisoned Vodka cocktail once the cancer gets unbearable.
In a botched rehearsal of the assisted suicide, Marge instructs and Evie misunderstands but finally thrusts an empty glass awkwardly into Marge’s face. It’s a sequence that ought to be a highlight of physical comedy in the Joan Davis tradition but doesn’t really make it.
Another of Marge’s pre-funeral obligations is to reconcile with her estranged daughter, and that reportedly does happen.
That the play seems to peter out rather than rise to a satisfying second act climax may go back to that statement in the brochure about changed lives. To differing degrees, these three lives certainly experience changed circumstances. But a changed life surely also implies a change of character and attitude that never really happens to Marge or Charlie or Evie. The new options the script offers that might make them different people are almost all summarily refused or quietly side stepped when Marge dies without any help from Evie.
The Last Word continues weekends at The Cherry in Carmel through May 14.