The year is 1966. The Vietnam War is in full swing, slashing a dividing line in American households. Hippies and outsiders lead the counterculture movement, jumping on every opportunity to ground themselves in anti-establishment ideals. Civil rights protests span the country, eventually leading to the creation of the Black Panther Party. Unrest in the United States is undeniable; older generations cling to the status quo while younger members of society struggle to tear it down.
This is the America presented in Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing at Signature Theatre. It’s an America that is uncertain, changing and full of tension. Yet in the center of it all stands Elva Miller, a quirky California housewife with a passion for the art of song. Her covers of popular artists such as The Beatles and Petula Clark frequently grace the radio, while her live performances on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Jimmy Durante Show never fail to garner a smile. She creates as much success as any other musician of her time. There’s only one problem — despite her personal opinion, Mrs. Miller is an atrocious singer.
Starring Emmy and Tony Award winner Debra Monk and Tony Award winner Boyd Gaines as Mrs. and Mr. Miller, respectively, Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing was a triumph in its world premiere. The “play with music” was written and directed by Pulitzer Prize winner James Lapine, and is based off the real-life story of Elva Miller and her unusual claim to fame.
The most enjoyable thing about the show was that it was equally entertaining and thought-provoking. The comedy felt natural and unforced, finding humor even in the smallest of Monk’s body language. Her whole performance felt completely genuine, paying tribute to Mrs. Miller’s story with comedy and light-heartedness without once ridiculing the not-so-adept singer. Her vaulting, erratic singing was hysterical, wonderfully hiding the fact that Monk herself is actually a good singer. In addition to her vocals, she perfectly captured the essence of an aging aunt or grandmother, fully fleshing out a character many audience members will recognize from their own families.
The show wasn’t just full of laughs, though. There were moments of uncomfortable tension, largely between Mrs. Miller and her conservative-turned-hippie niece, Joelle. The generation gap between them was all too visible, with Mrs. Miller diligently supporting the Vietnam War while Joelle wholeheartedly fought against it. The relationship fostered between Monk and Rebekah Brockman, who played Joelle, was incredible. It was clear each person had their own goals and values in mind, and was willing to stand up for those values while also recognizing the familial bond between them. The display immediately reminded me of what I imagine to be numerous households in this moment in history, with family members on both sides of the political aisle staying true to what they believe in yet still trying to maintain healthy relationships with each other.
What really made the show a success was how incredibly versatile it was. Its comedy and storyline appeals to audience members of all different ages, despite primarily focusing on the story of a 59-year-old woman. There were some jokes I didn’t understand that had older audience members cracking up, which was to be expected. Yet there were also instances where younger people seemed to be the target audience. Anyone could enjoy it, an aspect that created a stronger connection between audience members and the show as a whole.
Mrs. Miller Does Her Thing will be featured at Signature Theatre until March 26. For more information regarding ticket prices and show times, visit www.sigtheatre.org.