Alzheimer's is a terrible, dreaded condition which robs people of their intelligence, their personalities, many of the emotions they value most and, in the end, their basic engagement with life itself. That's also very close to describing my experience in watching this miserable production of Kenneth Lonergan's dismal, mewling drama, "The Waverly Gallery".
Because of the pandering way in which this script pleads for our compassion without ever earning it, one feels almost guilty about feeling so little, rather like walking past a beggar in the street. Certainly there's a valid story here. The impact of dementia on families is profound and inherently dramatic. The increasing incidence of the disease in an aging population makes the topic both immediate and compelling. Real people are confronting real crises that change lives. Unfortunately, none of that is on display here. Instead, we have an artificial family essaying emotions we can't justify toward a person we know too little about. The dramaturgy is hackneyed, static and shallow. With great performances it might have been possible to overlook enough of that for the situation itself to carry the evening, but this performance only emphasized how threadbare the script was.
Marjorie Nelson plays Gladys. She is the grandmother of Daniel (Michael Chick), who serves as the play's narrator. Gladys begins as the sort of endearingly eccentric woman who would own an afterthought art gallery in Greenwich Village, in which she hangs bad art by needy artists. Alas, we can see that her grasp is slipping, and that causes much sincere fretting for her good daughter, Ellen (Joyce Mycka-Stettler), and her decent but clueless husband, Howard (Mark Jenkins). When she generously hangs the first show by a hopelessly naÔve young painter full of hope, Don (David Gehrman), it is only to learn that her gallery is being reclaimed by the owners of the building where it has been tolerated for years. The family takes turns taking Grandma in, but her grasp on reality grows ever more tenuous, until her grandson has to call, in the middle of the night, in a puddle of tears, to declaim it is just too much, too much, too much. The daughter then takes Mom in, and we learn (via the narrator) that she devotes the next two years to watching her dissolve into oblivion. This makes Daniel feel very sad and guilty, which is why he wants us to hear his story.
Problems? Where to begin? Marjorie Nelson has a distinguished career as an actress, but in this play the effort to recall her lines, to simply discharge the role, is all too apparent. She is sweet and pleasant and her confusion is alternately cute and pesty, but never really fearsome and overwhelming. As a result the others, who really are working to bring some drama to the evening, seem to be running in place. Glady's role is so thinly written that we mostly laugh at her comic confusion, without ever really sensing what the loss of her coherence is costing her. Beyond that, we are never given any of the detail, any of the real substance of a real life that would make us feel the same degree of loss that her family appears to be feeling. For example, what does the gallery really mean to her? What do these struggling artists mean to her? When she loses the gallery, her reaction is "Oh, well. I'll do something else", and we also feel that it's just about that unimportant. That lack of depth is equally catastrophic in all the characters. The family, gathered around the table, confronts the "issue" of Grandma as just that, an issue, rather than a point of differing contention for each of them, a source of conflict between them, a focus for all sorts of emotions and old wounds and festering expectations that real people have of each other. The common emotion they seem to share is petty inconvenience mixed with a good dose of grudging responsibility. To whom and as a result of what is never quite clear. Except for the potential of feeling like they haven't done the "right" thing, there's not much sense of anything important being at stake here. Even the grandson, for all his intensity and discomfort in recollection, seems mostly to be feeling bad that he wasn't able to deal with a problem that is taken off of his hands with a phone call. Pretty thin soup.
As the husband, Mark Jenkins simply has nothing to work with; no arc, no point of conflict, no complexity deeper than polite dinner conversation. As his wife, Joyce Mycka-Stettler does some solid work, impressing me with her own conviction and depth even when the script abandons her to trivial emotional splashing. If, indeed, this woman devoted two years of her life to Gladys's final days, then that was the play. I wish I could have seen it.
The painter, Don (David Gehrman), is such a cliché and so irrelevant that he seems to belong to some other (familiar) comedy. Certainly there are plenty of bad artists in New York, deluding themselves at the same time that they find a modicum of success to keep them going. And his naivete is breathtaking, but are we really to believe that he senses no hint of his own fraud? And what does his story have to do with Gladys's, especially since we see the two of them interact in such trivial ways? Early on the family is concerned that he might present a danger to Glady's safety, but it's clear he's only a danger to blank canvas, and his story (to say nothing of his importance to hers) goes nowhere.
This show is a disappointment in so many ways. After months of extensive remodeling, this marks the opening of a newly remodeled stage for the Empty Space Theatre. Unfortunately, the deep set by Peggy McDonald only serves to reinforce the hollowness of the drama. And as for theatricality, Mr. Lonergan imagines his characters sitting at tables, sitting on chairs, sitting on a couch, and standing in a gallery space. With movies we at least have close-ups. With this play we have nothing but distance. People sit or stand, and then they talk and talk and talk.
The struggles against Alzheimer's, and against all forms of diminished capacity that comes with age should be rich material for the theatre. It can make, break, define and permanently mark all who encounter it. But this play, unrealized, manipulative and maudlin, doesn't even approach the area. The inadequate performances are not for lack of trying, but passive direction by Kip Fagan and a devastating lack of complexity and integrity in the script overwhelm any good intentions. "The Waverly Gallery" betrays its fundamental responsibilities as drama, to move or amuse through recognition of some common experience, and ultimately, sadly, goes gentle into that good night.
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