Jill Eikenberry is a bitch. Well, at least in her amazing performance as Hope in the Ars Nova production of Be A Good Little Widow, she plays one very convincingly. Hope is a widow who lives a spotless, upper class life in Connecticut. She keeps house, works and volunteers with other widows. Death doesn’t throw her off her stride; it is the living she has problems with.
|Chad Hoeppner, Wrenn Schmidt & Jill Eikenberry photo: Ben Arons|
Hope is convinced that her son’s new wife isn’t up to the task of homemaker. When he dies suddenly, she is convinced her daughter-in-law will not be an adequate widow. It is a captivating performance that Ms. Eikenberry gives, playing a very difficult woman with very little vulnerability.
But what makes Be A Good Little Widow work so well isn’t just Ms. Eikenberry’s performance. Widow draws on remarkable performances from rest of the cast, particularly Wrenn Schmidt as the new wife, Melody. Melody is the perfect foil to Hope, because she isn’t up to the task of “homemaker” as Hope defines it, and she knows it. Ms. Schmidt’s Melody is a newly wed young woman - unsure of her role in the household and a bit overwhelmed by a new home in a new city with a husband that travels too much. Hope has to work hard to point out fault with Melody, not because there isn’t any fault, but because Melody cops to it so quickly.
Melody is also a bit at sea in her relationship with her husband Craig (a nice turn by Chad Hoeppner). She loves him, but doesn’t seem sure how to relax around him. Craig has emerged from college into a good job, back in his hometown. He's the perfect guy - and Melody is made insecure by it. The only person she seems fully at ease with is Craig’s young assistant, Brad, played by Jonny Orsini with a goofy charm.
Ms. Schmidt’s performance swivels from comedic to dramatic and back with the speed of a pinball machine. Melody is overwhelmed by adult events, while still very much a young woman. The interaction between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, always tense, is excruciating in these circumstances.
When Craig dies on a business trip, Hope treats Melody as she would any new widow. Melody, who chaffed under her mother-in-law’s condescension as a new wife, cannot contain her emotions in this new situation, reacting randomly - but understandably. The juxtaposition between how these two women deal with grief is wonderfully honest.
Be A Good Little Widow is deftly written by Bekah Brunstetter, who has a light touch. A story like this provides a lot of opportunity to go wrong. It is a tribute to the Ms. Brunstetter and Stephen Brackett, the director, that action states so tight and emotion so well executed.
Ars Nova is an intimate theatre, and this production uses the intimacy well, providing an excellent theatrical experience.
Be A Good Little Widow (website and tickets)
Playwright: Bekah Brunstetter
Director: Stephen Brackett
Cast: Jill Eikenberry, Chad Hoeppner, Jonny Orsini, Wrenn Schmidt