note: entire contents copyright 2001 by Beverly Creasey
Kenneth Lonergan's supremely sweet memory play --- inspired by his grandmother's Alzheimer's --- is at once hilarious and extremely touching. Lonergan deftly captures both the exasperation of dealing with an individual with dementia, and the painful desperation felt by that individual in his play called "The Waverly Gallery". Both experience the urgent desire to communicate despite an inability to do so.
The matriarch of a family of "upper West Side atheistic Jewish intellectuals...[who prefer] German choral music" could just as easily be my own mother. Dementia seems to run a universal course....so Lonergan's hearing-aid scene (checking and changing batteries) is maddeningly familiar to those of us with deaf or ailing, failing parents. Like sharp-eared dogs, we recognize the shrill beep our parents don't even hear. We painstakingly adjust the amplification level, and we shake our heads in frustration when, after we're satisfied, up goes a hand to undo what we've just accomplished.. In life, it's trying. Onstage, it's hilarious.
Lonergan brilliantly shows how a proud octogenarian masks her fear with indignation. The play's grandmother exasperates the entire family by misunderstanding simple details yet insisting she has interpreted the situation correctly. In life, you feel like tearing out your hair when you answer the same question over and over ... but when it's placed on stage, you laugh the glorious laughter of recognition.
Director Rick Lombardo's joyous New Rep production features Joan Kendall as the gallery owner who champions underdogs --- like Doug Lockwood's deliciously daffy painter-in-residence. Kendall gives a powerful performance as the headstrong but fragile grandmother with this terrifying disease. Joe Smith's nuanced portrayal as her beloved grandson balances hers, making the two bookends for the comic characters caught between. Bobbie Steinbach and Ken Baltin know their way around a slow burn....and Steinbach gets to deliver the outrageous comebacks we civilians would like to say. Then she cuts to the bone with her portrayal of anguish. s her character says about the tragedy of Alzheimer's "Nothing can stop it."