The opening show for the Women’s Theatre Festival (WTF) is a short, explosive example of the absurd ways human beings cope with the absurdly uncopable. Written by Sheila Callaghan, and presented in Burning Coal’s Murphey School Auditorium, Crumble combines pathos and unreality to present an oddly real picture of loss and the struggle to return to normalcy.

Using only five actors, Callaghan creates a scene of loss, while drawing some of the most interesting and disturbing characterizations I’ve seen of late. A mother dealing with the loss of her husband, a daughter trying to do the same at the loss of a father, and a sister who hasn’t a clue as to what’s happening right in front of her, combine with a Crumble-ing apartment bent on self-destruction, provided it can take someone with it when she goes.

While the show is set in late December, a Christmas show this is not. Janice (Kimmy Fiorentino) and her mom, Clara (Laquana Henny), are too busy trying to cope with the loss of Dad (Gerald Louis Campbell) to even begin to conjure any holiday spirit. Clara is not coping well, but that is nothing compared to Janice, who carries on destructive conversations with her dolls while serving them bleach in toy teacups. To call Janice precocious is the wont of Aunt Barbara (Lu Meeks), whose grip on reality is demonstrated by the fact that her family consists of 57 cats. And to top it all off, the apartment where Clara is raising Janice is 1) animated (Laurel Ullman), 2) destructive (Callaghan describes her a “conflicted murderer”), and 3) crumbling down around Clara’s ears. Both Clara and Janice have “Help!-Come-take-me-away” heroes; Janice’s is Justin Timberlake, and Clara’s is Harrison Ford (both played by Campbell). The climax of this play is literally explosive, coming 60 minutes into this 65-minute show, after which, coping tries to continue in the form of a family dinner. We are relieved to learn that, despite all that has happened, Clara and Janice are still not so bad off as to accept the offer from Aunt Barb to move in together. Absurdly, life, such as it is, goes on.

WTF has chosen this explosive little packet to open their Festival with a literal bang; these characters are sharp, expertly defined, and too real — absurdity must ensue. Henny’s Clara is far enough gone to seek the assistance of her madcap sister, whose Peter Pan advice (an apt description I have lifted from Billy Joel) does less than nothing to alleviate Clara’s fears or woes. Janice cannot cope with the devastating loss of her father and takes it out on her dolls. And Barbara, this family’s closest thing to a “together” person, dispenses homilies like she dispenses tuna to her cats, which even she cannot keep straight. Callaghan takes these three simply normal people and drops them into a situation that is absurd, creating a reaction that can be nothing but absurd. The combination of humor and pathos in this tightly constructed little package makes for an over-the-top, wickedly perverse, and genuinely satisfying evening of theatre. Kudos especially to Ullman as a once-regal, now-seedy abode who begs for repair by threatening collapse.

Director Kayla Kaufman has woven these characters together with a skilled hand, using the space of the Murphey School Auditorium to best advantage. She and her cast have created an intimately funny but mind-numbing evening of theatre that cannot help but grab your attention.

Crumble continues through Sunday, June 24. Four other plays are also a part of this year’s Women’s Theatre Festival which runs through August 7. The festival includes a 24-hour period of occupation of the stage by women: playwrights, actresses, readers, directors, and presenters, from June 30 at 7:00 PM to July 1 at 7:00 PM, at the Renaissance Center in Wake Forest. For dates and times for Crumble, please view the sidebar. For a complete listing of shows within the Festival, search CVNC’s calendar, or go to