What is the funeral equivalent for “always the bridesmaid, never the bride?” Always the pall bearer, never the griever? Well, whatever it is, it characterizes Anna (Najla Said), a woman who has much to grieve but never allows herself to. Woman at the Funerals, a new play from Moscow Art Theater by Elena Balyberdina, examines the effects of trauma on a woman’s identity and how community can help or hinder the process of finding one’s self.

A messy divorce leaves Anna vulnerable to changes in her family dynamic, which isn’t helped by her developmentally-stunted and quite bitter children (Sarah Michelle McAvoy and Stewart Alden). Add to this toxic mix a non-descript unsteady job and a wishy-washy relationship with her new boyfriend (Pete MacNamara), and Anna begins to feel very much alone and useless. But through it all, Anna seems remote from her feelings. She tries to ignore her children’s problems, for example, by booking an impromptu family trip to Greece. When this plan doesn’t exactly lift off the ground, Anna instead turns to planning a funeral for a friend’s son. Soon enough, more connections contact her for her funeral directing services and Anna becomes something of a funeral connoisseur.

Sarah Michelle McAvoy, Najla Said, and Pete MacNamara in Woman at the Funerals
Sarah Michelle McAvoy, Najla Said, and Pete MacNamara in Woman at the Funerals

It’s not so much that Anna enjoys funeral planning. She hesitantly commits to each one, and none of her experiences seem enjoyable. The script also decidedly never shows what her funeral planning process is like or any evidence of what a good planner she actually is. Rather, Anna enjoys feeling needed by those in grief. Already empty of her own identity by the changes in her life, Anna only finds fulfillment in being useful for others.

But again, Anna seems disconnected in these engagements, which leads me to suppose that this fulfillment isn’t substantial. She’s out of place at the funerals, the only eye without a tear in it, and her role there is often questioned by the participants. Much like her personal identity, her position as funeral director is always unemotional, always unclear, and always bending to other people’s projections of her.

Balyberdina’s interests in psychology and post-traumatic recovery (she is a mental health and philosophical counselor as well as playwright) are clearly evident in Anna’s own recovery process. Woman at the Funerals is at its essence a meditation on what is left of our selves when our roles as mothers, lovers, workers, etc. get stripped away. The play also uses dance and movement to contextualize its more abstract psychological concepts. The motif of water and swimming recurs throughout —Anna accessorizes with swimming and several large paddles are the most prominent props in the play. An opening scene shows the cast trying to ride against a strong watery current with varying degrees of success. Those who succeed only do so by joining with one or more people, working as a community. Perhaps Anna might not be so lost in the current herself with some meaningful relationships at her side.

Woman at the Funerals plays at the IATI Theater through June 29th. Tickets here!