At Bootleg Theater's world premiere of Kerri-Ann McCalla's "The Willows," audience members file into a spacious theater that feels reminiscent of a funeral home. It's a good thing the play is set in a funeral home, otherwise that would be worrisome. Amanda Knehan's set design feels hollowly decorated and purposefully dated; a strong contrast to the very current storyline.

Without giving much away, the audience spends the eighty-five minute runtime of the play following two storylines, with minimal crossover. The first is that of Mr. Black (Thomas Silcott), the director of the funeral home, and his son Mark (Napleon Tavale), the mortician. Silcott maintains a strong presence on stage throughout the play, and plays his part skillfully, without any unnecessary choices. Tavale, however, does not hold up his end of his scenes. Tavale shines in his comedic moments, but without an emotionally grounded characterization, his part tends to feel empty.

The second storyline is that of a mourning widow and her deceased husband's family, all gathered for the service of the man they have lost: George. Perhaps the most endearing of these characters is George Sr., played by Paul Dillon. As the forgetful and loving father, Dillon steals the hearts of the audience with expertise, and grounds any scene he is in with his intelligent and creative character work.

While there are five living members of this storyline, the sixth member, George, is the one most relevant to the plot. Because most of the scenes in the play are spent talking about George, it's important that the actors have a clear conception of who this man was. And they do — eventually. The most successful at communicating George's character is his pregnant widow, Maya, played by Stefanée Martin. Her role feels underwritten and slightly vacuous, but Martin brings personality and a beautiful light to the role, painting a clear picture of who George used to be.

The ensemble collectively builds the emotional stakes of George's death slowly throughout the play and eventually lands at a solid place, but with stronger commitment from the start, George could feel real enough by the end that he deserves a playbill credit.

The cast makes a valiant effort to tell their individual stories, but McCalla's writing feels unfinished. By the end of the play, there is still a question of whose story the audience is meant to focus on, and the characters' journeys seem to have just missed their peak. While much of the writing feels natural and serves the story, some parts read a bit awkwardly, and a number of jokes fall flat. This takes away from a beautiful story of loss, something every audience member can relate to.

"The Willows" is playing through May 5th at Bootleg Theater (2220 Beverly Blvd.). Tickets are $10-$20. For more information visit
bootlegtheater.org.

You can contact Contributing Writer Sasha Urban here.