Imagine you’re on an airplane and have to choose between sitting next to Frannie Potts or a set of colicky triplets. You’d probably choose the latter. The triplets could be tuned out with earplugs, but Frannie, the main character in “Loveland,” comedian Ann Randolph’s one-woman show at Arena Stage, makes her presence known to everyone on the plane with her increasingly erratic behavior. In short, she’s a traveler’s nightmare, but also the source of a comedian’s best material.
“I have this part of me who wants to be able to speak the unspeakable in an irreverent manner, especially around taboo subjects,” Randolph says. “Creating this character gave me permission to say what my internal monologue was thinking.”
It’s safe to say that Randolph’s internal monologue is very funny. She’s a Los Angeles comedian who has worked with many of the greats — from Mel Brooks to the Groundlings, the troupe that gave Will Ferrell his start. But the subject of her inner ramblings when she created this show was something darker: The aging and death of her parents. The passing of her father and her mother’s stroke inspired Randolph to write the show as a way of coping with their mortality.
“I would cry the whole time I was writing,” she says. “I had a lot of loss. I thought I wasn’t going to make it.”
“Loveland” channels that loss into tragicomedy. Potts, Randolph’s alter ego, is flying home to Loveland, Ohio, upon the death of her mother, who is a composite of both of Randolph’s parents. And her way of dealing with the enormity of the event is to disrupt the cabin’s calm with her brash sexual fantasies, off-the-cuff observations and contorted facial expressions. She also plays all of the other characters on the plane — the flight attendants and embarrassed seatmates — as well as her alcoholic mother, in the form of flashbacks.
Potts is not just a character, says Randolph, who sometimes lapses into her mannerisms in everyday life. “Someone will say, ’Oh my God, you were just Frannie!’ ”
Though Frannie’s behavior is downright weird, her tears and fears serve as a proxy for members of the audience who have experienced grief.
People wait in the lobby after the show, Randolph says, and tell her about their own grief. “They’d say . . . ‘I’ve never been able to speak about it, but when I saw your show, you got this,’ ” she says. “This would happen night after night. I thought, ‘Well, why not do this in the theater and have this be a community event where people share and speak about loss?’ ”
Because her story has encouraged so many people to share their experiences, Randolph hosts a short writing workshop at the end of each performance — part of her “Good Grief Tour” — encouraging the audience to write about a loss. The responses haven’t just been about death; sometimes it’s the loss of a dream and just as hard-hitting. Though no one has to share what they’ve written, many members of the audience volunteer to read their stories aloud.
“It’s phenomenal,” she says. “It’s like a whole other show — a deeply moving, profound show that happens right after ‘Loveland.’ ”
Yes, a few tears are shed. But humor is the best way of coping with life’s most difficult challenges, Randolph says.
“It’s so hard to explain,” she says, and imitates a theatergoer: “You’re doing a grief tour, and it’s funny?”
Through April 13 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. 202-488-3300. www.arenastage.org. $25-$40.