At first, it all seemed a bit odd. For instance, the audience was asked to stride down the aisles of the Lobero and take seats not in the theater, but on the stage. Then a minister in full clerical collar came out and spoke a few words, including the traditional admonition to silence electronic devices. He even pointed out the exits, opening wide a potential excuse for any number of jokes about leaving the building. But no sooner had Brian Harwell, as Dave, come on than we were transported to a very special place—the sick room of his mother, where Dave and his sister (Julie Ann Ruggieri) are waiting for mom to die. The play’s premise was then revealed, as while mom remained in bed, a second actress, Ann Dusenberry, came onstage and began to move about, voicing her thoughts as she lay there silently absorbing a morphine drip.
Walking around Mom thus became the first of several characters to appear in Unfinished Business who were not to be understood as embodied in the same way as the original trio of Dave, Sis, and Mom in Bed. Marion Freitag came in as the spirit of Grandmother, followed closely by the spirit of hard-partying neighbor Sally (Katie Thatcher). Together they launched an assault on both Mom and Dave designed to loosen the two up and get them talking comfortably across the great divide of mortality. Their collective confidence is shaken, however, when another messenger from the other side begins pursuing his agenda. As the show’s “Mysterious Man,” Solomon Ndung’u portrays something like the grim reaper, a figure whose purpose is to encourage Mom to let go of her hold on life and go peacefully into the hereafter. With much soul-searching and even some emotional outbursts and bickering between the siblings, Mom eventually finds her way. The latter part of the show is the more effective. Lathim’s language comes to resemble that of The Book of Common Prayer as he has the Mysterious Man recommend humility as “waking up to the wonder of yourself.” While the religious overtones may or may not have been intentional, the glorification of Mom’s passing, which is accomplished through a clever integration of movement and lighting effects, has the impact of secular last rites. When the whole thing is over, the stage goes dark and the space above sprouts a giant web of stars in the form or tiny Christmas tree lights. It’s these small touches that add up to a lot in this moving and thoughtful evocation of living—and dying—well.