AisleSay (Boston) "The Waverly Gallery"



By Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Rick Lombardo
New Repertory Theatre
Newton, MA through October 21, 2001.

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

"The Waverly Gallery", which I dreaded seeing the way I dread the losses of memory, perception, intellect, identity and relationship brought about by the course of Alzheimers, the disease it portrays, met my dread squarely, and triumphed over it. I am very grateful-- to the author for writing it, to Rick Lombardo and his cast for making a whole-hearted commitment to it, and to that particular New Rep audience for the courtesy and courage of their rapt attention, which filled the Newton theatre with a quality that I can only describe as holiness. Not that "The Waverly Gallery" approach to the ravages of Alzheimers is anything like what we are accustomed to think of as a "religious" or "spiritual" one. The family in the play are self described "Jewish atheists", and "Waverly" presents a world in which there's no promised afterlife in which the lost will be found, and mourners comforted. There are no other intimations of immortality offered as balm, either -- no Causes, no Inspirations, no Genetic Line, and no suggestion that by providing the subject matter of a play an old woman's dementia and death become Artistic Immortality. Reviews praising one or another octogenarian actress who, unlike the character, has escaped the disabilities associated with old age, for demonstrating her continuing mastery of her art and her unimpaired physical instrument had rather led me to expect some positive spin. Like the Lapine/Sondheim "Sunday in the Park with George" that opened at Boston's Lyric Stage the same post September 11th weekend, Kenneth Lonergan's script for "The Waverly Gallery" uses painters and artistic technique metaphorically, as a central instance of the way the human mind tries to understand and shape the world. But Lonergan makes no special claims for art, or for himself as artist. His play feels like something he wrote because on a practical level he had to find the truth of it for himself: writing to record this terrible thing that happened-- to his grandmother, to his family; trying just to get it down, to get it right, to see what if anything can be gleaned from what happened. Surprisingly, it turns out that watching actors re-enacting this terrible thing inspires courage, and releases a flood of sorrow and tenderness. We know that this is what tragedy is supposed to do, but we really don't expect it until it happens. We leave the theatre different from who we were when we came in . We see each other with new eyes.

Lonergan's script has a young writer called Daniel as narrator. Daniel is played at New Rep by Joe Smith, whose approach to his role seems as straightforward and ordinary as his name, and is exactly right. Mostly, Smith handles the exposition. He serves the audience, telling us what we need to know about the family. Particularly we need to know about Gladys Green, the narrator's grandmother, who was a lawyer and a leftist in the glory days of Greenwich Village, and managed the tiny Village art gallery, the "Waverly" of the title, in her retirement. Gladys was always charming, she always gave interesting parties and took in strays and devoted herself to causes, and, it seems probable, loved her family in an off hand way that paid scant attention to their individual peculiarities and preferences. When we meet her in the play, Gladys is still launching into her charming stories, blissfully unaware that the family member she is talking to, nonstop, has heard her story many many times before-- most recently, less than five minutes ago. Smith's Daniel functions as a young Everyman, delivering lines that are straightforward and ordinary. The lines turn out to be funny surprisingly often. After all, Daniel is in an impossible situation. Huge cracks have opened between words and their meanings, the present is playing hopscotch with the past. He and his parents can't tell what his grandmother will make of anything they say, or even who she thinks she is talking to. Incongruity and miscommunication are the stuff of comedy. But even as we laugh, our laughter easing our way into their situation, we know that this is not something that can be cleared up and reconciled before the final curtain. Daniel, like Gladys, is on a one way trip to the abyss-- and it is an abyss that can open at the feet of any one of us, at any moment.

Joan Kendall is amazing as Gladys, but she is so good that it only occurs to you to be amazed by her performance some time afterwards. Kendall doesn't look eighty years old, but then neither do half the eighty year olds of my acquaintance. Whatever her age-- and as an actress Kendall is well advised not to limit her range by revealing her birth date-- Gladys' lines must represent a huge challenge, to concentration as well as memory. What Gladys takes in of her surroundings, and what gets away from her; what is still subject to manipulation, and what floats up unbidden from the past-- all this has very little to do with what cues are spoken to Kendall, but is totally dependent on Kendall's self creation of the character's inner life.

Bobbie Steinbach plays Daniel's mother Ellen, a thrice married doctor, and Ken Baltin is her psychiatrist husband, Howard Fine. Much of what is said about these characters in the play is said by Gladys, who in her present state of dementia is obviously an unreliable source. We can't be sure what sort of relationship these two had with Gladys before Alzheimers altered everything, but thanks to the richly nuanced performances by Steinbach and Baltin, we can tell that it was deep and complex. It is also obvious that these are good people, people who care for each other and have an implacable sense of duty. What happens goes like this: Gladys will say something impossible-- irrelevant, mistaken, or a word for word repetition of what she just said a few moments before-- and Ellen or Howard will respond with patience, frustration, amusement, anger, helplessness-- or not respond at all, but talk past Gladys to one of the others. Whatever that response, it carries with it a whole history expressed in body language: the press of daily business in the lives of well educated professionals; the weight of a shared past as a family, past efforts to define and defend their identities in the face of Gladys' strong personality and her drive to incorporate them into her own narrative. Lonergan sets this up, very simply, and Rick Lombardo and his sensitive cast fill it, with layers and layers of wordless feeling swirling around and through the economical dialogue. That, too, is significant. When a family composed of intellectuals comes up against the abyss, intellect fails. There are no helpful theories, no therapies, no solutions.

Habit helps, in the sense that it provides a kind of planking over the abyss. The family acts as if as long as Gladys is going through the motions of the life she chose for herself, she, and they, will be spared the worst. They could count her out. They could apply cost benefit analysis and decide that for the greater good of the greater number they will put Gladys in a nursing facility and visit her when they can spare the time-- but they don't. Daniel, who once found it convenient to share Gladys' Village apartment, now bears the brunt of the effort of keeping his grandmother independent and in familiar surroundings, but Ellen and Howard supply meals and outings and company and first one and then two hired home care aides to provide the constant tending it takes to keep Gladys going-- money helps, too. Gladys herself, in her final exercise of her habitual charm and generosity, finds one last stray to take in who will make it possible for her to continue going to her beloved Waverly Gallery. Doug Lockwood plays Don Bowman, a naive representational painter from the hinterlands, who is thrilled when the Gallery's owner invites him to hang his work on her walls and sleep on a cot in her back room. We aren't encouraged to pass aesthetic judgment on the art the Gallery displays. Joseph Pew's scenery and Daniel Meeker's lighting design supply a general impression of "art", as they indicate "dining room" or "hall", separating function from taste. Don Bowman may or may not have artistic talent. He certainly doesn't have a command of fashionable artistic jargon, or any idea of what steps he might take to advance his career. Lockwood's rube has dignity, however, so we don't take the character's failure to realize how disconnected from reality Gladys has become as a sign that Don is dense-- Don just doesn't know what the family knows. Don's well intentioned optimism keeps the gallery open and Gladys engaged until the Waverly's landlord refuses to renew the lease.

After that, it's the abyss. Gladys falls apart more and more rapidly, but takes her time about dying. Lonergan spares us most of what the family goes through caring for Gladys' physical shell and the fragments of the person she was. The author has Daniel tell us just enough about this last stage of Alzheimers for our imaginations to reach out in pity to Gladys, and Daniel, and to anyone who has experienced a terrible dissolution like this one, and also to recoil in terror at the idea that such a thing might happen to us. And then Daniel says something simple, and cathartic, that speaks not just to the dread of this death, but to all the deaths that touch us and the singular death we all will die. This telling, this imitation of what happened to his grandmother and to him and to the family of which they are a part, is something the artist has done for himself. It's personal. It's domestic. Yet it works as tragedy works, it brings us to catharsis. At a time when many of us who ordinarily push the thought of death out of our busy lives have had dread forced on us, and death's image burned into our eyes, it is a healing purge for the fear flooding into our dreams.

Individually and as a community, we are struggling to understand a terrible thing that has happened: trying to get it right, to see what if anything can be gleaned from it. This play helps. I prescribe seeing this play. The New Rep is an intimate theatre physically, and under Rick Lombardo it has opened out to cultivate a spiritual intimacy. The New Rep theatre can feel communal, like an extended family-- a safe place to open our hearts. "The Waverly Gallery" evokes intense pain, but it is pain we have in us whether or not we face it and name it. Trust the author, trust the director, trust the actors, and you will come away grateful: intensely, if vulnerably, alive.

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