The New Repertory Theatre in Newton Highlands opens their 17th season with Kenneth Lonergan's play The Waverly Gallery. It runs Wednesdays through Sundays from now until October 21, 2001. The play chronicles the mental and physical deterioration of Gladys Green during the last two years of her life. We are told that she was once a Greenwich Village icon, a genuine leftist from the old school who took as much pleasure attracting a crowd around a soapbox in Washington Square as she did gathering one for an impromptu party in her apartment. In her heyday she was the neighborhood "enabler," operating first as a lawyer, then in her later years, out of a small street-level art gallery on Waverly Place. Gladys was the one you went to whether you needed signatures on a petition, a new apartment or a place to hang your paintings.
Her story is told by grandson Daniel, now one of her caretakers thanks to his proximity in the apartment across the hall from hers. The family situation is played out around the dinner table in the Upper West Side apartment of Daniel's mother and stepfather and in the gallery downtown, where she harbors one last down-on-his-luck artist who doesn't need her as much as she needs him
What's interesting about Lonergan's take on this subject (which is Alzheimer's Disease, although the word is never spoken in the play) is that he doesn't shy away from anything. We get the full gamut of feelings and emotions the other characters run through in their attempts to accommodate her limitations and provide for her care. And it also should be said that this play is often screamingly funny, made all the more so by the expert handling of overlapping dialogue and the awkward timing of "missed" communication.
Director Rick Lombardo has cast the ensemble perfectly, beginning with Joan Kendall as the eighty-something Gladys (a role she also played this summer at the Vineyard Playhouse on Martha's Vineyard). Joe Smith makes an auspicious New Rep debut as her grandson, Daniel, and New Rep veterans Bobbie Steinbach, Ken Baltin, and Doug Lockwood ably round out the cast as her daughter Ellen, son-in-law Howard and the hapless artist who is Gladys' last "project."
The evening gets off to a good start as we meet Gladys and Daniel visiting together over lunch in the gallery. He's doing the eating; she's the one doing most of the talking. Gladys' thought pattern is circular and disjointed in time and her processing of new information inhibited, so Daniel thinks, by a faulty hearing aid.
In the scenes that follow, Gladys' predicament unfolds and worsens. And herein lies the dilemma of the play. It isn't really her predicament. One of the cruel ironies of Alzheimer's is that the sufferer can't actively participate in the recognition of the situation and the weighing of options. Or at least Lonergan didn't choose to figure out a way to dramatize the story from her point of view.
What we get, instead, is something closer to his own point of view, in the guise of Daniel. (He's freely said in interviews that the play is based on his own grandmother.) So, unlike Wit, where we're offered an unusual glimpse of a fatal illness dramatized from the subject's point of view, the central character of this story isn't in a position to take hold of the play and guide us through its inevitable course. By the second act, the play itself has become circular and somewhat disjointed, making leaps in time as the disease runs a slow course.
Based on my admiration for You Can Count on Me, a film written and directed by Lonergan, I was looking forward to Boston's "mini Lonergan festival" which continues with his most recent play Lobby Hero, up next at the Lyric Stage (October 26 - November 24.)
I still think he's a skilled writer with an excellent ear for dialogue and observant eye for character. And this is, nonetheless, a lovely production of a flawed play. The production design (sets by Joseph Pew, lighting by Daniel Meeker and costumes by Joanne M. Hass) is first class. And last, but not least, the sound system and selection of incidental music (sound design by director Rick Lombardo) is exquisite.
The Waverly Gallery is at the New Repertory Theater, 54 Lincoln Street, Newton Highlands, Mass. For tickets and further information call the box office at 617-332-1646 (voice and TTY) or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. For directions visit the website at www.newrep.org