Manicures and Monuments, the latest offering from Journeymen Theater, has some very funny passages but it is not simply a comedy. It is, instead, that rarest of things – a play for grownups, composed of the small epiphanies and simple pleasures that ordinary people have to comfort them against the relentless buffeting of life.
We are in the day room of a nursing home which appears to cater to the neurologically impaired, somewhere in parched, bug-spattered Oklahoma. Lucinda Bailey (Marilyn Benner), a salty, blunt-spoken former nurse who seems to suffer from a Parkinson’s-like illness, and her sweetly addled friend Camille (Glee Murray) await the arrival of the new manicurist, Janann (Tiffany Fillmore). To us, Janann is nothing but an archetype – an empty-headed Okie girl, done with high school and dabbling in the manicure business while awaiting the arrival of her prince. But Bailey sees her as an original human being, complete with the imagination and force of will she needs to achieve her dreams.
In the hands of a lesser playwright, Janann, under Bailey’s guidance, would eventually be elected to Congress, while at the same time Bailey would recover her lost love for her fellow humans, and the other inmates at the facility would amuse us with their comic disabilities. But Victoria Cheatwood has other, and better, fish to fry with her closely-observed, authentically rendered story. She is interested in how real people – who are big-hearted, courageous, petty, generous, prone to self-pity, bathed in ego and prostrate with fear – actually behave.
So we see the denizens of this miserable, understaffed vestibule-to- death, Bailey, Camille, simple, stuttering Sammy (Zuanna Sherman), demented Sarah (Charlene James-Dugoid), doomed, hopeful Mr. Swanson (Manolo Santala), the territorial Luther (J.P. Ilarramendi) — as they fall into senescence, incontinence and the embrace of chaos and entropy. We watch the overworked charge nurse, Smitty (Sarah Melinda) give in to her worst impulses. Before us, Janann makes dreadful choice after dreadful choice, and even her tiny dream – to one day see Mount Rushmore – seems increasingly unlikely. We are powerless to stop her. We are no longer in a theater, watching actors. We are in a real place, and we are watching the real deal.
The verisimilitude of the piece owes itself in large part to the production’s attention to detail, for which director Deborah Kirby deserves considerable credit. Janann, tardy for her first job as a manicurist, rotates her washbasin in her hands in high anxiety. Bailey’s right hand is gripped with palsy as the play opens; and by the Second Act both arms are shaking compulsively. Whenever Sammy manages to utter a complete sentence, he breaks into a beatific smile, and his body is awash with relief. And Kirby cleverly takes advantage of Atlas’ bright yellow hallways by bringing characters onstage through the open doorway which is clearly visible to the audience. Against the pale blue of the day room, the Atlas corridor convincingly doubles as the hall of a nursing home.
Strong, authentic performances grace this production. Benner puts Bailey’s affliction not only in her body but in her voice, which resembles that of Katherine Hepburn in her final days as a professional. Ilarramendi, who has performed with VSA Arts, is spot-on as the enigmatic Luther. Sherman uses great actorly restraint as Sammy, eschewing cheap laughs for complexity. In his hands, a character who could have been a foil is fully realized. This is the third performance I’ve seen for Ms. Fillmore in the last year. Her roles in Pecan Tan and Much Ado About Nothing couldn’t have been more different from this role, or from each other. Each time she found the elements which made her characters specific, and authentic. It is time to acknowledge the emergence of yet another Washington actor of considerable intelligence and range.
It is worth our while, too, to acknowledge the performance of James-Duguid, who had very little stage time and no comprehensible lines. With this tiny bit of construct, she put on an acting clinic. Her face and body was a rictus of fear and confusion, intermittently leavened by sly, but incorrect, comprehension. Alone in her room, while the story arc proceeded, she passed her moments in fitful, troubled sleep. She never called attention to herself, but when I occasionally looked at her, it appeared to me that she had found her own story arc. In her final appearance, reduced to a series of bodily functions registering only in the reptile brain, she never lets us forget that she is fully human. This is an actress, who is willing to crawl into the belly of the beast.
Given the bleakness of the subject, it may strike you as curious that the First Act ends with Bach’s Ode to Joy. But, seen as intended, that is precisely what Manicures and Monuments is. Bailey, gifted by modern medicine with more days than she previously would have had, transforms herself by forgiving some sins, including her own. Janann gains not a new life but acceptance and wisdom about the life she has.
Manicures and Monuments teaches us that we live in a world of pain, where kindness is still a possibility. Journeyman Theater, which has declared as its mission the creation of art that addresses social and moral issues, has made a canny choice to mark the Christian feast of Resurrection.
Manicures and Monuments, presented by Journeyman at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Wednesdays through Saturdays through May 6. Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7.30; Fridays and Saturdays at 8. Saturday matinees at 2. Tickets $20 ($15 for seniors, students at group). For reservations call 202.399.7993.