“The Wake” is a study in family relationships tinged with black humor

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Scene from
"The Wake" with Kathy McCafferty, Kelley Rae O'Donnell, James Gushue and Wayne Maugans.

New production at Premier Stages is a must see

Premiere Stages at Kean University in Union kicks off its 15th season with The Wake, winner of this year’s Premiere Play Festival. Tammy Ryan’s excellent four-character play charts the events of a fateful weekend in which plans fall apart, expectations are not met and met all too well, and the board game Sorry! takes on new meanings. It is a play about relationships and the power of family ties. It is a play so well-written and well-acted that its twists and turns are unpredictable yet fully grounded in the characters’ reality. It is a powerful and startling play, and it is one you must see.

Premier Stages "The Wake" with Kelley Rae O'Donnell and Kathy McCafferty
Premier Stages “The Wake” with Kelley Rae O’Donnell and Kathy McCafferty. Photo by Mike Peters

The Wake is set in a beach house in Florida. Maggie (Kelley Rae O’Donnell), the youngest of three sisters, and her partner Doyle (James Gushue) are preparing for a week during which the ashes of middle sister Colleen will be scattered in the ocean. Eldest sister Rosemary (Kathy McCafferty) and her husband Ed (Wayne Maugans) arrive only to state that instead of staying the week as planned they are heading to Orlando three days hence, rejoining their children on vacation. Amid threats of a tropical storm off the coast and with limited contact with the outside world, Rosemary and Ed get increasingly panicked despite Doyle’s overly exuberant attempts to calm them down. Blocked from evacuating because of flooded roads, the foursome hunker down in preparation for a storm that seems to be Mother Nature’s revenge—but for what is not certain.

Producing Artistic Director John J. Wooten leads his cast through this dark-tinged comedy, keeping the tension level high as the characters move into and through the storm. The sisters’ picking at old resentments between them make them wonder if the storm isn’t their late sister communicating her displeasure. Of the four actors, it is James Gushue’s over-the-top portrayal of Doyle that fuels much of the humor. His assurances that things will go well as he lists all the things that could go wrong are nearly giddy.

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Premier Stages "The Wake" with Kelley Rae O'Donnell and Kathy McCafferty
Premier Stages “The Wake” with Kelley Rae O’Donnell and Kathy McCafferty. Photo by Mike Peters

As the squabbling sisters, Kelley Rae O’Donnell and Kathy McCafferty are all too believable in portraying the kind of family members whose memories cannot be forgotten yet cannot quite reach resolution and forgiveness. Wayne Maugans’ Ed is in the unfortunate position of being the modern man who is helpless without cable television and cell phone reception. It’s a thankless role, yet Mr. Wayne Maugans adds to the comedy by being the one off of which all the others bounce.

Excellent work is done by the production team in creating a setting that acts as both the target of a hurricane and the arena in which the sisters’ emotional turmoil is fought. Scenic designer Bethanie Wampol Watson’s beach house set reminds me of the bungalows from my own summers on the Jersey shore. Greg Solomon’s lighting and Emily Auciello’s sound provide some wonderful special effects in calling up the hurricane and its effects.

Tammy Ryan’s The Wake is emotionally satisfying, a fine mix of drama and comedy. It is extremely well-written and well-acted, a treat for the discerning theatregoer. I recommend paying a visit to Kean University in Union to attend The Wake while you still can.

The Wake is presented by Premiere Stages at the Bauer Boucher Theatre Center on the campus of Kean University in Union through July 28, 2019. For tickets and information, visit premierestagesatkean.com.