In the aftermath of a terrible tragedy, an elegant living room takes center stage. The setting of George Brant’s The Mourners’ Bench, a world premiere play in Trinity Rep’s new series Three by Three in Rep, is a space large enough to hold the best and worst parts of human nature — the tendency to hurt and destroy, the ability to love and forgive. But it is also a space small enough to force reconciliation and resolution. With ghosts that cling and a grand piano that begs to be played, it’s a difficult but absorbing place to spend an evening.
Directed by Michael Perlman, the play begins with two estranged, adult siblings. Bobby (Mauro Hantman) and Melissa (Angela Brazil) haven’t spoken in over four years, divided by Bobby’s alcoholism. He has just spent the remainder of his trust fund on the purchase of their childhood home, the scene of the murder-suicide that claimed their parents. For Bobby, the house provides comfort, a way to come to terms with what happened — “I should’ve grown up here,” he explains. For Melissa, it’s a house of horrors. Their strained reunion, filled with weighty silences and punctuated by bursts of rage, is a hard look at the damaging, long-term effects of trauma.
Act Two takes place thirty years earlier, soon after the parents’ deaths. Bobby and Melissa’s aunts Wilma (Janice Duclos) and Caroline (Phyllis Kay) meet to discuss the care of the children and the sale of the house. The humorously no-nonsense Caroline thinks they need to “gallop through this,” to move on as quickly as possible. The kindly, emotional Wilma frets over the best course of action. Their conversation starts out funny and friendly but, burdened by stress and grief, soon escalates into a heated argument in which old resentments spew and dark secrets spill.
The final act of the play is surprisingly tender and moving. It revolves around the new homeowners, whose offer Wilma and Caroline have just discussed. The wife Sarah (Anne Scurria) is terminally ill, and her husband Joe (Timothy Crowe) hopes that the house, which she has always admired, will bring her joy and peace in her final days. They too have serious issues to resolve but, in Scurria and Crowe’s capable hands, their love is palpable. With death approaching, they give a much-needed face to the concept of loss and demonstrate the mightiest reason for mourning.
The Mourners’ Bench suffers a bit from a lack of subtlety. The characters all declare their intentions and innermost feelings, and little is left to the imagination. The powerful premise, at times, also becomes tangled by additional intrigues. But, with a haunting and compelling story, fine acting and direction, and skillful set design by Michael McGarty, this living room is well worth a visit.
The Mourners’ Bench runs through May 24.