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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

The Cast's the Thing in Assisted Living at ACT Theatre

Also see David's review of Boeing-Boeing


Laura Kenny and Tim Gouran
Playwright Katie Forgette's darkly comic new play Assisted Living is perhaps best described as part 1984, part One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and part Cocoon. Unequal parts to be sure, but not parts that come together in a wholly satisfying evening of theatre. But, thanks to a bunch of Seattle's MVP character actors, entertainment wins out in the end.

Assisted Living takes place in the conceivable near future U.S.A, where Medicare is extinct and has been replaced by SPA, The Senior Provision's Act, which provides very little for needy Seniors without families to house them. In one such facility reside our main characters, grumpy old Wally, cheery former Nurse Mitzi, one-time arts teacher Judy, and former actor Joe, a spirited new arrival who reinvigorates the others by organizing a play reading group. Thwarting the group at every possible turn is Claudia, a pitiless bureaucratic R.N. who seems to be the spawn of Nurse Ratched and the Wicked Witch of the West, while Kevin, a friendly young orderly, covertly aids them in their efforts. Comes the holidays and the group gets permission to stage a nativity tale complete with Wally as an unlikely and unwilling baby Jesus, but it may be thwarted, and with some dire consequences, once Claudia gets wind of the plan. No spoilers on the ending here, but the playwright does get in one nice surprise you may not see coming.

Forgette is on the nose with the dismal facts and figures about the state of affairs in elder care and how culpable the baby boomer generation is for their own predicaments. But at heart I think the playwright is a softie, which accounts for how much better the warm-hearted comic moments play than do the darker edges. The Claudia character as written is so inhumane that she ultimately isn't a real threat to her charges at all, and you almost expect Mitzi to melt her with the contents of a bedpan.

Director R. Hamilton Wright has directed or co-starred with the majority of his cast before, and knows exactly how to orchestrate his four principals into a harmonious quartet of adorable oldsters. Jeff Steitzer as Wally has a master's degree in portraying curmudgeons with a heart of gold and is a sheer delight here. Laura Kenny as Mitzi is as always hilarious, but also mines the pathos inherent in her role as a former nurse who can't quite accept that she has been put out to pasture. Husband and wife actors Kurt Beattie and Marianne Owen are warm and thoughtful as Joe and Judy, especially in a moment where a stage kiss between them turns into something more. Julie Briskman makes Claudia as venal and cold as written, and can't be blamed for the deficits in the writing of the role, while Tim Gouran is charming and jovial as Kevin.

Set designer Martin Christoffel perfectly captures the ambiance of an assisted living facility's cheery if chilly multi-purpose greeting area, with some neat touches, such as a chute down which human bodies can be disposed when no one's looking.

ACT Theatre's audiences are likely to embrace this production for its cast and its humorous side, and perhaps if the playwright is able to integrate the schizophrenic nature of her text, Assisted Living may find sustained life elsewhere as well.

Assisted Living runs through May 12, 2013, at ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle. For reservations and other information go to www.acttheatre.org.


Photo: Alan Alabastro



- David Edward Hughes



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