Monday, August 20 , 2018, 2:32 pm | Partly Cloudy 76º


Review: Rod Lathim’s ‘Unfinished Business’ Takes Dealing with Death to Heart

Dying is something we all will do. Dying with dignity and peace, surrounded by loved ones, is something we all hope for. Rod Lathim’s Unfinished Business is a very personal account of his mother’s death, with he and his sister at her bedside.

Yet, like all good art, it takes the personal and makes it universal and very accessible. With Lathim not only writing but directing, he retains control over every nuance, with beautiful results.

Produced last year as part of an evening of one-acts at Center Stage Theater, Unfinished Business played to sold-out houses and caused quite a buzz in the community.

The recent production, May 9-12 at the Lobero Theatre, was a benefit for the Alliance for Living and Dying Well, a consortium seeking to improve end-of-life care and to shift attitudes about death away from fear and toward acceptance.

Both productions have used an intimate “in the round” seating configuration. At the Lobero, the audience was seated on the stage, in chairs on three sides of the performance area. For those accustomed to sitting down in the normal seats, this offered a slightly otherworldly atmosphere to begin with.

As David, the “Rod” character, Brian Harwell does a spectacular job. His warm, down-to-earth manner anchors the action, which gets chaotic at times. His dialogue also includes some narration, and he moves smoothly from speaking to the audience to interacting with other characters.

Aside from Harwell, the other actors all reprise their roles from the original production.

Julie Anne Ruggieri plays Sis, the dutiful and loving daughter, who is also pregnant with her first child. While she is not the most sympathetic character, clashing with her brother over their very different views, Ruggieri capably portrays her as a good person doing the best she can in a difficult situation.

In a very effective device, Ann Dusenberry plays their Mom, disembodied from her unconscious figure in the bed. She is brilliant in this role, walking the line between fear and wonder at her own impending demise and concerned about unfinished business of her own. She is soon joined by two of her dear departed, who have come to usher her over to the other side.

Marion Freitag as her mother and Katie Thatcher as Sally, a flamboyant neighbor, bring sweetness and comic relief. They do their best to calm her and point out that her father and family dog are waiting for her, too. Soon many other welcoming spirits appear, eventually visible to David, who has always been able to see such things.

As an unfamiliar being who arrives among them, Solomon Ndung’u is arresting, with his sharp white suit and mysterious air. As with many aspects of the play, there are no easy answers as to his identity, but he is clear in his mission — to escort Mom into the afterlife.

While the play touches on issues of religion, spirituality and the purely unexplainable, the beauty is that it allows audiences to look past belief or faith and see an experience of love, life and death through the eyes of another.

— Justine Sutton is a Santa Barbara freelance writer and frequent Noozhawk reviewer. The opinions expressed are her own.

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