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Forgetfulness Drama is Mostly Memorable

The Old Lady at Sea: Vivienne Shub in Everyman's The Waverly Gallery

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 11/21/2001

The Waverly Gallery

Kenneth Lonergan

Growing old is most cruel when a lifetime's worth of accumulated wisdom and personality starts to slip away. The elderly woman running the titular New York art gallery in Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery still has enough bodily strength to hang shows and receive visitors, but Gladys Green's mind is going fast.

Best known for writing and directing the film You Can Count on Me, Lonergan has a knack for delineating his characters' everyday quirks; the octogenarian actress embodying Gladys in this Everyman Theatre production, Vivienne Shub, brings decades of acting experience to a demanding role that requires remembering a lot of lines about forgetfulness. Gladys isn't the whole show here, but it's her mind and her gallery that are front and center.

Lonergan does a great job demonstrating how Gladys' idiosyncratic habits and leftist politics remain intact even as her memory falters. He runs into a bit of a creative challenge, however, in crafting a memory play that is actually a memory-loss play. He so effectively delineates Gladys' mental condition that the audience invariably feels as exasperated as her relatives do. Gladys' scrambled and repeated lines can be wearying; too often, Lonergan allows her to ramble on beyond the point where we see his point.

What keeps The Waverly Gallery from becoming depressingly redundant is Gladys' vibrant personality, especially as captured by Shub's fully realized portrayal. Gladys' feisty spirit and lively sense of humor help her relatives and the audience alike get through the experience of watching her decline. Lonergan also wisely employ a framing device--narration by Gladys' adult grandson, Daniel (Josh Thelin), which gets the play out of her head, so to speak, and allows for much-needed ironic commentary.

Living in the same apartment building as his grandmother, Daniel bears the familial brunt of Gladys' slide into senility (in the play's most touching scene, she repeatedly knocks on Daniel's door through what turns out to be a very long night for him), but his mother (Paula Gruskiewicz) and stepfather (Stan Weiman) also seem ready to explode with worry and frustration. Despite some wavering New York accents, these actors really nail their roles.

The family members are written so incisively that it's surprising how badly Lonergan stumbles with another character, an artist named Don (Bradley Thoennes) who is fated to have the final exhibit in Gladys' gallery. A naive country bumpkin newly arrived in the big city, Don is such a comic caricature that he becomes a distraction--I found myself musing that I'd rather be forgetful like Gladys than an idiot like Don. Thoennes' broad performance does nothing to improve a poorly written role. Perhaps director Vincent Lancisi, who otherwise handles the cast so well, should prod this actor to tone down his rube routine.

The only other disappointment in the Everyman production is Daniel Ettinger's set design. Although it sensibly relies on a turntable to quickly shift the action from the art gallery to family apartments, it makes for too-small quarters. The cast seems squeezed into the rooms. It's one thing for Gladys' mind to shrink, but that's no excuse for such a claustrophobic set.

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