Elizabeth Coplan’s ‘Til Death is a quietly intense portrait of the last weeks of a 76-year-old woman who is dying of ovarian cancer. Depressing, yes, also fascinating, as written by Coplan and acted by the superbly subtle Judy Kaye as Mary Gorman married to the warm and loving Michael Zenith (Robert Cuccioli, fine), her second husband. The play takes place over a single year.
Mary has three adult children from her first marriage: Lucy (Amy Hargreaves), businesslike and cool; artistic and meek Anne (Whitney Morse); and the youngest, Jason (Dominick LaRuffa Jr.). Each has a secret which, of course, is revealed as ‘Til Death rolls on to its inevitable conclusion.
Mary and Michael live in an Over-55 community in California in a modern, but dreary, apartment designed in grays and browns by Teresa L. Williams. On the walls that frame the set old photographs, supposedly of the Gorman family over the years are projected during changes of scenes (projection design by Lisa Renkel).
The play opens on Mary’s birthday.
Lucy, who is beyond rude to Michael, works with her mother to arrange some form of suicide, much to the chagrin of Anne and her step-father. Lucy is the self-appointed care coordinator for Mary, giving her mother medication and too much advice.
Nick (Michael Lee Brown), Lucy’s 16-year-old son, is clearly Mary’s favorite family member, but Lucy is contemplating taking a very good job in New York City which would endanger her custody battle with her soon-to-be ex-Sam (who never appears). Her sibling Jason tries to dissuade her.
As she considers her alternatives considering her dire diagnosis, she has conversations with her children about her life, a life of achievement and pride. She gently explains why she married Michael who tries to help raise the conversation out of the dark by telling jokes that amuse no one.
The intramural bickering doesn’t let up and even intensifies when Mary reveals the contents of her will and each sibling reacts badly, leading to further squabbling. After her inevitable death, the play ends, leaving many loose ends, including, frustratingly, how the fight over the will ends.
The secrets revealed seem more contrived and clichéd and take away from the moving story of Mary’s battle with cancer. Nick behaves badly. Lucy has a drug habit and Jason questions his legitimacy in the family—all turn ‘Til Death into a soap opera, a beautifully acted soap opera, yes, but still a soap.
Kaye and Cuccioli provide the emotional heft, particularly in a tender scene when, for a few minutes, the rest of the family isn’t around. Both are expert actors and find all the rich opportunities to give life to Coplan’s words.
Antonio Consuegra’s astute costumes help define the characters and Dawn Chiang’s lighting provide subtle support.
Chad Austin, the director, tries his best to keep all the diversions under control, but all the yelling and accusations lessen the play’s emotional impact despite the efforts of the talented cast. .
‘Til Death (through December 23, 2023)
Abingdon Theatre Company
Theatre 5/Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
Running time: 80 minutes without an intermission