Grace is dead.
While her end was tragic, her life was not. To celebrate what she stood for, I gathered with six other people, along with members of Grace’s family, to commemorate her at her wake. However, things quickly get a little out of hand. Her mother struggles to find the right words, through a haze of alcohol. Her ex-husband becomes overbearing about his ownership over her memory. Her brother is angry, and demands to know who that young woman in the back is, and why she is even there.
Grace’s wake is not about her passing. It’s about the grief we experience because of it.
Coming off of last year’s incredible debut, IN ANOTHER ROOM, E3W Productions returns with their sophomore effort BITTER AT THE END. While I compared last year’s show to being a beautiful ghost story, this show is more of a depressing one. That’s not a slight against the show itself, of course, but of human nature; how people react to the passing of a loved one.
It’s hard to describe just what the show is without spoiling bits and pieces of it, but I will do my best not to do so, as it is best experienced for yourself.
To me, the show had two distinct halves; the wake itself, and then beyond. While it is an immersive experience, the first part of the show was more akin to traditional theater. Though we, the audience, are actually at Grace’s wake, much of the action unfolding takes place as the characters get in front of the crowd. Through their various eulogies, we learn the relationship dynamics between not just each other, but also with Grace. While all this is happening, Grace sits in a glass coffin not too far away, the memory of her always present as everything goes to hell.
Though this all took place in an incredibly large room, this scene, to me, felt the most claustrophobic. We were trapped in this scene, with the family and their mounting issues, with no way to get out, much like Grace is trapped inside her glass coffin. As it goes on, I became increasingly uncomfortable, almost feeling like a voyeur while listening in on the various things going on. While it did help set the stage and establish the characters, I did feel like it went on a little too long, and slowed the pacing down a bit.
However, when the second half began (ironically enough, in a much smaller space), I felt like that is where the show really opened up. It was here that we were taken, one by one, to spend time with the individual characters, to really get to know them, and their relationship with Grace. With seven audience members, and seven actors, the one-on-ones felt more intimate, knowing that the character was living just with you in that moment.
I spent the bulk of my time here with only three people; Shirley (Grace’s lover), Kevin (Grace’s ex-husband), and Janet (Grace’s mother). Each of them gave me a part of Grace that I hadn’t expected to see, while also revealing some of their inner selves to me. The acting here was absolutely superb. While at points in the opening scene, some of it felt a tiny bit wooden, in these one-on-ones, everyone absolutely shined. I had tears in my eyes with Janet (Maria Olsen) told me about her struggles with drinking and what parts of herself that she gave up with Grace was born. Kevin (Skip Pipo) showed me his collection of things; objects, memories, and more, and obsessively talked about how more was stolen from him by her dead. And Shirley (Joy Monroe)…oh, poor, sweet, Shirley. I was so touched by her love for Grace, by their coming together, it really broke my heart to see them torn apart by Grace’s death. Monroe was, by far, my favorite member of the ensemble, and she really blow me away with her stories. Of course, there is a repeatability factor here as well, since you don’t get to spend time with all the other family members, but it was fun to trade stories with other participants when the show was done to show what we learned.
For those who saw IN ANOTHER ROOM, you may remember their incredible set design. Well, you will absolutely not be disappointed here as well. From the simplistic, yet effective, nature of the first room of the wake, to the magical places you experience during the one-on-ones, E3W Productions blew me away with their production design. At one point, I stepped into a tent, and was transported into a barn. And then a bar. And then a collector’s mind. It was absolutely incredible. They continue to pack so much detail into such small spaces, it is amazing.
I mentioned earlier how this show depressed me upon completion, and it did. While we gathered there originally to celebrate Grace’s life for her wake, during the course of the hour I spent, I came to realize that death really isn’t about the person that passed; it’s about those they leave behind. Their memories of that person, how they take ownership over them, how they want more, how they internalize it, how they personalize it, in the end, no matter what we do to make our lives great, all that’s left is a memory…and one that may, or may not, even be true.
BITTER AT THE END was a dramatic piece of immersive theater. It made you think about what people will remember of you when you are gone. Will it be happy? Or is it always bitter at the end…for you, for us, for everyone? Kudos to the E3W Productions team of Austin Keeling, Aaron Keeling, and Natalie Jones for telling yet another compelling, yet sad, story about ghosts; not necessarily the ones that haunt our halls, but the ones we leave behind.
The show runs select nights from March 15 through April 1. Very limited tickets remain, so grab yours today at: https://bitterattheend.brownpapertickets.com