Judith Light in Colder Than Here
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Judith Light in Colder Than Here
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
The problem that the English are traditionally fabled to have with expressing their feelings gets a vigorous workout in Laura Wade's Colder Than Here. The reason for this old topic being given the once-, twice- and thrice-over here is Myra, whose bone cancer is rapidly spreading throughout her thin frame. In the throes of the onslaught, she has abruptly realized that she must prepare her husband and two daughters for her inevitable demise in the six months or so she's been told are left her.

To assure that viewers get as full a meaning from the title as possible, Wade sets much of the action during a British winter when Myra (Judith Light), hubby Alec (Brian Murray), and daughters Jenna (Lily Rabe) and Harriet (Sarah Paulson) spend an inordinate number of afternoons on leaf-covered ground to scope out potential sites for a "green" burial. When they're not outside looking at cemeteries, these four inhabit a home unheated by a bum boiler. "We've been cold for four months," Alec yells at the boiler's recalcitrant service provider, subliminally hinting that his family has been cold to each other for far longer than that.

With the continuing chat about sub-freezing temperature, there's no missing the dramatist's suggestion that there are many kinds of literal and figurative cold. She further implies, with unflappable conviction, that nothing is colder that emotional distance. And though Wade may have underestimated an audience's ability to receive her message without abundant script fingers pointing at it, she has still composed a genuinely affecting piece.

She accomplishes what she sets out to do by economically creating four well-rounded figures. Of them, Myra is the most intriguing. A woman with a strong sense of humor and a near fearless approach to the facts of her situation, Myra does have moments when approaching death reduces her to tears. For the most part, however, she suffers her increasing pain stoically as she goes about inuring her loved ones to the final departure. She understands that she's got only so much time to discuss with Alec, Jenna, and Harriet issues that are vital to her and them; so she attempts to hasten those discussions, at one juncture giving a Powerpoint talk on her funeral and at another asking about Jenna's bedroom activities. She also undertakes to repair the sexual estrangement between her and her husband.

Wade has written Alec as a humorous Brit whose quick wit is a tactic for avoiding the need to talk about what he's thinking. One of the fellow's problems is that he doesn't much care for daughter Jenna or for her (unseen) boyfriend Mark, with whom Jenna herself is disenchanted. Jenna doesn't really get along with Harriet, about whom less is revealed, while Harriet has a hard time putting up with what she sees as Jenna's self-involvement. It's these grating family dynamics that Myra hopes to smooth before going to her final resting place in the wooded area of her choice. By the time Wade ties up the threads of her plot, which is troubling in the way that any story grappling with death can be, she's done a thoroughly believable job of showing how intramural healing is possible. Undoubtedly, her success is due to a sage understanding that family members at odds with one another often ache to be reconciled. That longing is there for all the world to see, even if the participants don't take it in.

Meeting the demands of Wade's perceptive script, director Abigail Morris (who helmed the original production of the play at London's Soho Theatre) is fully equipped to put the actors through their sensitive paces. (She's also gotten Jeff Cowie to design a set featuring an expanse of the great outdoors and a living room on which Brian H. Kim can project bleak views of Leamington Spa. Candice Donnelly has provided the costumes, Michael Chybowski the complimentary lighting, and John Leonard is the sound consultant.) Light, who looks as if she's done a fair amount of dieting to play the dying Myra, does extremely well by a woman whose life is ebbing but whose spunk remains undiminished. Murray, wonderful as always, is funny and rightly out of sorts as Alec. One scene in which Alec and Jenna tacitly overcome their interpersonal problems is quite beautiful, as is every moment that the talented Rabe plays. Paulson's tentative Harriet matches the other performances.

By some eerie coincidence, Colder Than Here is the second play to open this week in which a dying mother attempts to come to grips with the brief future she's facing and the bereft, longer future faced by a puzzled husband and two daughters who don't necessarily get along with each other. (James Lapine's Fran's Bed is the other.) There must be something in the air nowadays besides hurricanes like Katrina and Rita, and Wade's Myra catches that cold wind.