Popular thesp David Graf (Eugene Tacklebery in the “Police Academy” films) suffered a fatal heart attack while attending his brother-in-law’s wedding in 2001. “Surviving David” is Kathryn Graf’s cathartic exploration of a young widow’s struggle to find her equilibrium in the months that followed. Under the creative guidance of helmer Tony Sears, Graf offers a compelling glimpse into her struggle to deal with unrelenting grief, while struggling to maintain some sense of familial normalcy for her two young children. Though Graf’s narrative gets murky and her interpretation of the men in her life exudes more caricature than character, she is a convincing storyteller who has impressively distilled her very personal experience into a viable evening of theatre.
Dressed quite casually in sweater and slacks, Kathryn Graf exudes an attractive, relaxed camaraderie as she launches into a brief history of her 20-year relationship with the hearty, good-natured actor she met when she was in her early 20s, interning at a summer theater festival. As if to set up the intensity of her future struggles, Graf’s depiction of her relationship with her husband is that of a being a helpful satellite to a larger-than-life, take-charge personality who prided himself on providing for all his family’s needs. Graf also injects a bit of the resentment she felt that David’s robust involvement in his career, his union work and myriad other projects, left her with a lot of the drudgework of keeping the family moving smoothly ahead.
It is a credit to Graf’s textured performance and Sears’ creative staging that the description of the immediate events that led up to and followed her husband’s death project a theatrical veracity that illuminates this one woman’s journey through the ultimate nightmare. Graf’s segue from the earthy gaiety she felt having a younger man appreciate her body as she danced in a skimpy, sexy black dress at a wedding reception to her mind-jarring embarrassment at how inappropriately dressed she felt while sitting in the hospital emergency room is a telling statement about how unprepared anyone is to face this ultimate tragedy.
As Graf moves her narrative forward, she certainly is not shy about chronicling all the slings and arrows that bombarded her as she attempted to cope and survive — and how often she wasn’t up to the task. She is also quite candid about how sexually needy she felt in the months following David’s death.
Graf confesses ignorance of the propensity for heart attacks in David’s family. It seems both his father and grandfather died in the same manner at the same early age of 51. This is such important information but Graf relates it almost as an afterthought. Jumbled into this section is an allusion to possible preparations David made in case he did die early, including setting up a lover for her.
Though Graf is quite appealing and often humorous in portraying many of the characters she interacted with, including her two boys; she has some trouble portraying men. From her husband down to the family friend Ron (her setup lover), all Graf’s portrayals appear as posturing monuments to testosterone rather than true personalities. Since these men are minor players in her narrative, this doesn’t detract too greatly from Graf’s compelling theatrical journey.