The Waco Civic Theatre's stage debut of Bill C . Davis' "All Hallowed" reminds audiences that most effective theater comes down to people — the people in the story and the people who play them.
In this case, both work. Davis' play is a group character study — a family of three siblings and their mother, one sibling's two kids and a family friend, all affected by the death of a not-so-perfect father.
Davis, best known for his 1980 drama "Mass Appeal," shows a knack for fleshing out characters through smart dialogue seasoned with quips and wisecracks. At the same time, he doesn't lean on familial stereotypes, but creates persons with individual sets of flaws, quirks and histories.
Even better, and this is thanks to an impressive display of ensemble acting, these individuals make a credible family.
"All Hallowed" opens at the Halloween burial of a family patriarch, for which his widow Marie (June Gable), sons Stephen (Seth Sutton) and Alex (Scott Peden), daughter Cindy (Susan Johnston) and her sons, 15-year-old Travis (Reece Thompson) and 11-year-old Justin (Hunter Gasaway) have returned to their former hometown.
As the siblings break away from the graveside, Justin frets that he'll miss trick-or-treating that night due to the funeral. The action shifts to the home of family friend Dennis (Win Emmons III), a recent widower who's hosting the post-funeral reception, and it's in his home that most of "All Hallowed" takes place.
The siblings are sorting out their feelings and memories, no easy task considering the deceased apparently was hard on his children and cheated on his wife.
• Estranged from his father, Stephen seemingly has little to mourn, yet still attended his final days in hospice care and was present at his death.
• Cindy, the family fixer, worries about her mother's mental state and whether she'll be able to live on her own: Marie mistakenly believes her husband's death was a sudden surprise and, something that mortifies Cindy, she's been talking to women at the funeral reception with whom her husband may have had relationships.
• Marie flits between conversational subjects and emotional states, but doesn't forget to blame Stephen, repeatedly, for supposedly triggering his father's death by telling him "God is waiting on you," a phrase the son meant as comfort.
• Alex keeps his emotions tightly in check. He's quick to defend his mother, but equally quick to leave when it's time for responsibility and commitment. At the same time, he may have been the one who contacted his father's girlfriend.
• Dennis is close to the family and to Marie, though not willing to entertain the idea of marrying her despite Cindy's best hopes. As for the kids, Travis is trying out adulthood, talking to his uncles as peers and smoking marijuana, while Justin — well, trick-or-treating is the priority at hand.
Welcome to the family — which could be anybody's family.
Just how these personalities navigate their first steps in life after father provides the dramatic tension in "All Hallowed," although the play's tone isn't somber or depressing. Davis' tight dialogue holds the audience's attention throughout — there's an intermission, but the play could easily run without one.
What makes Davis' writing work is a finely balanced ensemble, anchored by the siblings at its core as played by Sutton, Johnston and Peden. They're believable as individuals and as members of the same family.
Gable shows her talent and professionalism by keeping her character within the ensemble, not dominating it, and letting her physical touches — fluttering hands, an occasional little hop — inform her Marie without defining her. She's a welcome reminder of why Waco needs more Actors Equity productions.
Emmons is solid as Dennis, although his character seems somewhat on the periphery, framed by how others see him. Both Gasaway and Thompson, actors in the Waco Children's Theatre, ably handle a remarkable number of lines. Though their characters don't have quite the resonance as the adults' characters, they're important parts of the ensemble.
Director George Boyd III shows a firm, but invisible hand, letting his actors drive the play, but in the direction he wants.
The play's ending isn't as satisfying as what precedes it. Perhaps a mask motif seems too obvious for a play set on Halloween. Or it could be the characters' issues are too complex to allow easy play-finishing resolution. It's a small point, though, and one that doesn't spoil the play's enjoyment.
Maybe Davis can be persuaded to write a sequel that brings back his characters for a later chapter. If so, let's hope Boyd and his company return to bring that to life.
"All Hallowed" continues its run at the Waco Civic Theatre for a second weekend, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday (Oct. 25-28). Call 776-1591 for ticket information and reservations.