As soon as Christopher Goodrich and Rachel Stroud-Goodrich read the script of Bekah Brunstetter’s “Be a Good Little Widow,” the co-producing artistic directors of Unexpected Stage Company (USC) knew it was a great fit for them. “[We love] its quirkiness, its pacing, its witticisms,” Chris Goodrich said. “It’s taking this huge topic of losing someone, but putting it in a comedic light, although it has the [appropriate] gravitas.”
The story follows Melody, who becomes a widow after a whirlwind romance and a few months of marriage. Now she must plan a funeral with her mother-in-law, Hope, in a small community outside Hartford, Connecticut. “It’s especially devastating for Melody because she is dealing with death of her husband,” said Goodrich, who is directing the show. “She moved to her husband’s hometown. She knows nobody. She’s three years out of college. She doesn’t have a career. She’s sort of doggie paddling through the whole thing.”
Hope recognizes Melody’s dilemma, and as a long-time member of the local Widow’s League, she’s on top of all the planning. But Melody wants something to do, so she decides to make a few calls to friends, which result in conversations like:
“Hey, Brad, how are you?”
“Good, how are you, Melody?”
“Craig’s dead!!!” click.
That was the last call she made.
Brunstetter is best known for her television writing, including, the massive hit “This is Us.” “The way she writes is so charming,” Goodrich said. “She really knows what audiences can stomach and how long they can stomach it.”
There were challenges, too, in producing the play. “Bekah really is a TV writer. For example, there is no funeral scene,” Goodrich noted. “There’s a lot of storytelling that happens ‘during the commercials.’” The actors and director must fill in the gaps through creative production tactics. “What does the audience need to know? What have they missed?”
The Fireside Room is not a theater space, so everything has been built from scratch. The play takes place in the young couple’s small living room — typical of a first home. “It’s important to me that it’s a little cramped, a little claustrophobic,” Goodrich said. “You’re right there with the actors. I like a small space because actors can’t lie; they can’t rely on their tricks.”
“It’s a small cast,” he continued. “Actor Ruthie Rado is quirky and grounded. Also, Emily Morrison, who runs the actors center in town. We’re having fun with it.”
While moments of levity abound and provide relief to the audience watching a family struggle with the ultimate tragedy, both Hope and Melody come to certain real-life realizations during the story.
Melody’s youth and inexperience are painful to watch. “She doesn’t know what’s okay and what’s not okay,” Goodrich said. She didn’t know who she was before her husband’s death, and now young widowhood has come to define her.
For Hope, although she has been widowed since her own youth and helped other women for decades through planning funerals and grief, she discovers that “she hasn’t necessarily moved on. She hasn’t mourned.” And she comes to this understanding only while planning her son’s funeral with fragile, awkward Melody.
“From dutiful black dresses to inappropriate outbursts, Melody navigates an unchartered course towards understanding what it means to find someone through losing them,” Goodrich explained. “Brunstetter’s quirky comedy contemplates how devotion and hope can persevere in the midst of unexpected loss.”
The playwright summed it up best: “There is always something good on the other side of horrible pain.”
As part of its ninth season, Unexpected Stage Company presents Bekah Brunstetter’s “Be a Good Little Widow” from July 12 to Aug. 5 in the 40-seat Fireside Room of River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 6301 River Road, Bethesda. For general admission tickets, priced from $10 to $29.50, call 800-838-3006 or visit www.unexpectedstage.org. A special Pay-What-You-Wish preview performance is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, July 12; reservations are recommended. For information, call 301-337-8290 or visit www.unexpectedstage.org.