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Chicago by John Olson

Assisted Living
Profiles Theater

Also see John's review of The Christmas Schooner

Assisted Living
Jordan Stacey and Stacy Stolz
"Independent living" is an elusive thing for most. How many years do we have between emancipation from our parents before we become parents? And then how many years between our kids' emancipation and the time to begin care giving for our own parents? And then how long before we require assistance ourselves? Let's not even go there. Some people manage to extend these years of independence into decades; others never have them at all but move right from childhood into parenthood. In this world premiere play by Deirdre O'Connor, Anne and Jimmy are adult siblings with one surviving parent—their 78-year-old mother suffering from dementia (and never seen onstage). Anne is the primary caregiver, with the assistance of a home health aide who comes during the day. Forty years old and single, Anne's lost all social life since moving in to take care of her mother. Jimmy—maybe three to five years younger and working as a restaurant manager—isn't around too often and doesn't share much of the burden. As the play opens, he's late for an interview with a potential new home health aide, a millennial college dropout named Levi with questionable credentials whose sincerity convinces Anne to give him the job.

The premise of two adult, essentially parentless siblings—an older, more responsible sister and her younger, drifting-through-life brother—is reminiscent of Kenneth Lonergan's film You Can Count on Me, with Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo as the siblings, though the plots differ considerably. Like Lonergan, O'Connor has a gift for creating believable characters that are flawed—vulnerable, frequently wrong, but winning the audience's empathy. She also has Lonergan's keen ear for the way people talk and an ability to write dialogue that is both funny and truthful.

Assisted Living might be just fifteen minutes away from the quality of Lonergan's film. At 90 minutes of stage time (with no intermission), the script feels a little choppy and the characters underdeveloped. Without warning, Jimmy suddenly becomes suspicious of Levi's care giving. Jimmy and Anne have some shouting matches that feel unearned, and we really could stand to learn more about Levi. As it is, though charmingly played by Jordan Stacy, Levi is close to becoming more of a plot device than as full a character as Anne and Jimmy. Another 10-15 minutes of dialogue might be enough to flesh this story out into more satisfying form. Yes, the 90-minute intermissionless play is proving to be a popular format for theater, but there's a reason 105 minutes has been a standard length for feature film storytelling for so long, and this piece could use the extra time. In its current form, Assisted Living feels just a little diagrammatic in making its point that some people (Jimmy) need to step up and take more responsibility while others (Anne) need to lighten up. A bit more connective tissue in the script would help the play earn that conclusion. And where does Levi fit in this diagram? Is he also too responsible for his age? Will he be just like Anne when he gets to be 40?

Assisted Living is getting a fine first production from director Joe Jahraus and Profiles. It all feels honest and real, thanks in large part to David Ferguson's set—primarily the kitchen of the mom's home, but also fitting a car and a hospital waiting room into the storefront space of Profiles' Second Stage Theater. Stacy Stolz shows the many layers of Anne—lonely, overburdened, and frustrated, but with enough strength and residual hopefulness to try to break out of her rut. Layne Manzer as Jimmy is essentially a decent guy, with his immaturity possibly coming more out of ignorance than deep-seated selfishness; and Jordan Stacey's Levi is a goofy, awkward young adult who probably doesn't quite fit in with either his peers or with adults any older than he is. Shannon Hollander is also sympathetic in the smaller role of a young woman who enters the picture late in the play. We sense these four actors have done some good homework on the characters' back stories—we just need O'Connor to provide some more dialogue and scenes to let us in on the secrets.

Assisted Living will play through December 18, 2011, at Profiles' alternate venue, The Second Stage, 3408 N. Sheffield, Chicago. Ticket information available at www.profilestheatre.org or by phone at 773-549-1815.


Photo: Wayne Karl

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-- John Olson



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