If you’re looking for a Mother’s Day present with a macabre twist, consider tickets to “The Realization of Emily Linder,” which is at NJ Rep in Long Branch through May 24 (with two shows on Mother’s Day, May 10).
In this world-premiere comedy-drama, written by Richard Strand (who premiered his “Butler” at NJ Rep last year) and directed by NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas, an elderly retired professor — who is not in perfect health but not terminally ill, either — tells her daughters that she has had a premonition that she will die in her sleep, two days later. It’s a great premise for a play, taking us out of the realm of the ordinary but also creating a scenario where characters’ true natures can come to the surface, and Strand, Barabas and the small cast make the most of it.
Emily (Marnie Andrews), who taught French at the University of Iowa, doesn’t seem to have any doubt that the premonition will come to fruition. She had a similar premonition about her husband’s death that came true, she tells her daughters Margaret (Dana Benningfield) and Janet (Corey Tazmania). She wants to make the arrangements for her funeral with them, and edit the eulogy and obituary that she commands them to write.
Margaret and Janet reluctantly go along with their mother’s wishes. They reserve a space for the ceremony (under the premise that they are having a party), have the dress their mother wants to be buried in dry-cleaned, and buy helium for the balloons she wants to use for funeral decorations (instead of flowers).
It’s not that they believe that their mother will die as predicted. But Emily is not the kind of woman you want to say no to. She’s a pitbull who won’t rest until she gets her way.
Family photos line fill the walls of her living room, but she doesn’t seem to have much love for her daughters (or her deceased husband, for that matter). She’s one of those people who claims, with a shrug, that she’s just speaking her mind, but her bluntness can comes off as cruel.
This is more of a problem for Type B, sensitive Margaret than it is for Type A, no-nonsense Janet, who embraces the chores her mother gives her as a way to prove how competent she is. When Janet tells her mother about an ingenious plan she devised to keep a relative her mother dislikes away from the funeral, Janet glows with pride.
Margaret takes on the task of writing the eulogy, but after she reads it to Emily, Emily reverts to professor-from-hell mode, telling Margaret it’s a “Hallmark card of clichés.” Margaret, understandably, is devastated.
There is fourth character, too: Emily’s health aide Jennifer (Jenny Vallancourt), who spends much of her time seated in a corner reading a book, seeming oblivious to what is going on. But Jennifer’s professionalism and resolve are crucial to two important scenes, and Vallancourt skillfully snaps her character into fiery action when necessary.
Old family tensions continue to surface as we get closer to the night when Emily expects to die. Of course, I won’t tell you what happens then, but I can say that Strand brings everything to a satisfying resolution that has a touch of sentimentality, but is still realistic enough that Emily herself might approve.
For ticket information, visit NJRep.org.