Cooking for Grief, a one act play by Breanna Maloney, presented by Alma Matters Productions, invites us into a therapy session as it unfolds in real time. This small group is brought together by their substance addictions related to grief. Our focus is on Rob (Aris Tyros). He shows up late and doesn’t seem particularly welcomed, at first, by the other members—Monique (Banafsheh Taherian), Tory (Maloney) and their facilitator, Wes (Anand Rajaram). We learn that Rob previously left the group on not-the-best of terms and they are understandably resentful of his desperate reappearance related to a recent DUI charge.
This is a work-in-progress and I am not entirely comfortable reviewing this type of presentation. The limitations of the staged reading format—actors holding scripts, tracking a character’s emotional journey rather than living it—create a nagging sense of unfairness where critical appraisal is concerned. It holds an important place in the theatrical development process and I offer my experience of it as a contribution to that process.
Firstly, I found the script itself relies heavily on characters voicing their intentions and narrating their feelings rather than allowing the nuances of dialogue and behaviour to convey the necessary points. At one point, Rob even remarks: “nobody speaks like this.” He is referring to the initial awkwardness of their therapeutic role-play, but that sense of contrivance pervades the play as a whole. I found it hard to connect to these people as they embody, in a very literal sense, a cliched language of self-assessment.
Each of the other characters get the chance to reveal their stories in expository monologues disguised as role-play, but they seem to exist mostly to help Rob find himself. And I just don’t think Rob specifically is compelling enough to be favoured here. His tense relationship with his toxically masculine uncle and his sense of floundering and failure following the death of his father is interesting, but the show as a whole might have been more dynamic as a thoroughly fleshed-out ensemble piece, one that gives each character equal time and weight.
The clinical, white austerity of the set works well. The camera set-ups are standard, but varied and functional. I can sense Director Sarah Marchand’s love for these characters and her flair for simplicity of execution, but the filmed reading format doesn’t provide the immersion required to experience them as intimately as she does.
Any problems I had connecting to the characters would likely be helped by a full production, where actors are off-book and able to fully explore the nuances. In this form, we get just the broadest strokes and they don’t ground us in a consistent, lived-in reality. Though their desire is palpable, the cast don’t have the opportunity here to fully become these people.
There were moments, though, when the intensity hits just right. A role-play flare up between Rob and his uncle comes to mind. As does Monique reliving the detailed circumstances of her son’s death. There is something so powerful about her opening line, directed at Rob in role-play: “You are Adam, my son.” It is a heartbreaking moment, somehow even more powerful than the details she later reveals.
The motif of finding solace in food—cooking, specifically—is clear and resonant. The soothing experience of watching a cooking show, an impassioned fixation on a recipe for chilli that ties Rob to the memory of his father—this idea is one that feels authentically meaningful, though the title perhaps is a little inelegant.
I look forward to a full production of this work, to experience the story as Maloney, Marchand and her cast intended. This staged reading of Cooking For Grief is streaming until July 3, 2021.