I always enjoy the way playwright Carter W. Lewis’s mind works. Who else would set a play in the crematorium in the basement of the small Belladona Funeral Home in Omaha, Nebraska? Or start the play with about five minutes of a young woman alone in the furnace room with a body in a body bag lying on a table, prepared for the fire? The young woman is the night caretaker in the crematorium. She’s dropped out of high school twice and is now working on an essay she must write in order to be readmitted to the school. She’s also trying to find a place in the room where her cell phone can pick up a signal. In the recent production of The Science of Leaving Omaha at Washington University, Iris is a slender, reticent, and appealing individual played by Melia Van Hecke in a fully-fleshed-out performance.
Iris’s isolation is interrupted now and then by a phone call to or from Mrs. B., the owner of the mortuary, who with maternal concern checks up on her young employee. It is more upsettingly interrupted by a loud knocking on the door to the crematorium. lris has been instructed never to open that door to anyone, especially not when a body is in the room.
But the knocker is not to be denied. Soon he is kicking in one of the two small windows high on the wall and letting himself down into the room, confronting a distraught Iris who doesn’t know what to do. But Baker is not interested in her. It’s the body in the bag that he cares about. The body is his wife. Their attempt to rob a bar the night before was interrupted by gunplay, and as they fled on a motorcycle, with Ruth Ellis hanging on behind her husband, she was shot in the back and fell from the bike, dead.
Baker had promised his wife that he would always let her know what was coming next, and he has come to keep that promise. He grills Iris about what happens during a cremation, about which she knows very little, never being there during the actual procedure, and he rips through the books on the desk and bookcase in the room, looking for and finding some information about what happens. He relays to the corpse the little he has found. Nathaniel Holmes’s Baker was also a fully-fleshed-out performance with a Marlon Brando quality, appropriate both to the character and to Omaha and, unfortunately, with sometimes Brando’s trademark mumble.
Gradually, more eagerly on the part of Iris, who longs for the kind of love from someone that Baker and Ruth Ellis have, the high school drop-out loser and the college drop-out loser develop a relationship in their shared desire to leave Omaha. Baker agrees to go with Iris in her car to Arizona or somewhere.
But their plans are interrupted by the building’s security guard Sally, who has gotten a phone call from Mrs. B., worried about the calls she has gotten from Iris reporting that an outsider is in the crematorium. Sally of course has a key to the room, and when Iris refuses to let her in, Sally lets herself in with a drawn gun. Another fully drawn character, Sally persuades Iris that, with the building now surrounded by police, leaving with a wanted criminal would not be a good idea.
Lewis ends the play with a moving fantasy crematory reunion of Baker and Duryn Dunbar’s Ruth Ellen.
The program lists no scenic designer, but I assume that Emily Frei as props designer and charge artist, Sean M. Savoie as lighting designer and production manager, and Oldi Rodriguez as technical director were the ones who met Lewis’s challenge of providing a massive metal door to the furnace surrounded by convincing brick walls at one side of the set that also shows a conventional office with even a homey touch. Sallie Durbin designed costumes, David Frankel designed hair and makeup, and Benjamin Lewis sound. Andrea Urice, collaborating with playwright Lewis for the eighth time, directed the excellent performances and the engaging production.
Photo by Danny Reise Photography