When Herb Knoll's wife of 16 years, Michelle, died in 2008 after a lengthy battle with cancer, he found his world to be an uncertain place: lonely at home, listless at work, lethargic at play. He was, suddenly, a "widower."
Months after Michelle's death, Knoll was still wallowing in grief. Lots of moping. He decided to get counsel and comfort from outside sources: his church, texts.
Churchly advice wasn't helpful. A visit to a national, big-box book store found him searching the self-help aisles, looking for words that psychological experts say "describe the complex and ineffable features of emotional and behavioral life."
A friendly sales associate steered him to a stack of syndromes and problems: families dealing with a loved one's Alzheimer's, this condition, that disease. There were references to death and dying, much for widows, none specifically for widowers save an occasional paragraph.
"Mister," he recalls the clerk saying. "I don't have a damn thing for you."
Fast forward to 2017. Knoll has written and published a book, "The Widower's Journey," a sage collection of widower experiences and feelings. Lockport's Jacci Smith Reed, a frequent contributor to The Buffalo News' My Voice column, wrote "A Stranger in the House," her remembrances about her husband's losing struggle to Alzheimer's, "from the heart, learned from the mind and driven by the spirit." The same can be said for "The Widower's Journey," the inspiration for a new play by Neal Radice, "I'm Fine."
Knoll is a longtime friend of Alleyway Theatre's Radice and asked if he would write a play about widowers and their journeys, a "more visual depiction," so to speak.
After a year or so, "I'm Fine," a widower as protagonist, is in its "world premiere" at Alleyway, a place where new stage works are the norm. It's what they do. Radice, a definitive multi-tasker, also directs and serves as set and lighting designer.
I suspect that "The Widower's Journey" and "I'm Fine" share many moments but the characters on the Alleyway stage have sprung from the fertile mind of Radice, a writer/actor/producer/director/designer with involvement in over 200 plays over 45 years listed in his portfolio.
He has indeed followed Knoll's wishes with his creation of recent widower Mike and his sudden parade of life-adjustments, who is here a driver of big rigs, a devoted family guy who loves his beer and football, content to have his wife, Carol, handle the finances, make most of the decisions and generally have the last word.
When Carol died, Mike was ill-prepared - apparently like "Journey's" Knoll - for life without his wife, best friend, soul mate and confidant. Novelist Knoll wanted a widower theme and attention drawn to it; playwright Radice has made it so with "I'm Fine."
Radice has put much work into Mike - "I know this guy intimately," says Neal - wise daughter Allison, buddy Fred and a trio of women acquaintances when the story strays, spinning off into Act II minutes of hilarious online dating adventures. Journeys, indeed.
Some of Radice's best writing in years - real people saying real things - leads to laudable performances by bereaved and confused Ray Boucher, as Mike, who nevertheless learns and grows; Emily Yancey, invaluable and grounded as Allison; Jim Cichocki, as pal Fred; and the incomparable comic, Joyce Stilson, merely superb in several roles.
"You OK?" ask Mike's friends and co-workers. "I'm fine," he says. He insists to anyone listening, "I'm fine." At play's end, it looks like he will be.
Note: Author Knoll is due in Buffalo for the opening weekend of "I'm Fine," and will answer audience questions after the April 21 performance. Knoll also will be available for "The Widower's Journey" book signings.
3 stars (out of four)
A bittersweet comedy by Neal Radice
WHERE: Alleyway Theatre (1 Curtain Up Alley).
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday through May 13.
TICKETS: $25 general admission, $13 students. Call 852-2600 or go to alleyway.com.