- The Waverly Gallery
- By Kenneth Lonergan
- Directed by Christopher Carroll and Dana Edwards
- Produced by Didactic Theatre Company
- Reviewed by Tim Treanor
In The Waverly Gallery, Kenneth Lonergan paints a subtle, honest, and exquisitely detailed picture of a family wracked by Alzheimer’s. It is a family portrait because Alzheimer’s doesn’t attack the sufferer alone: it disrupts the lives of everyone who comes into contact with her.
Gladys Green (Lee McKenna), an eighty-five year-old woman who has lived a life of formidable accomplishment, sits with her grandson Daniel (Danny Gavigan), recounting the old days. She has a raconteur’s style, a feel for the punch line, a knack for drama. So what if she occasionally repeats herself, or mistakenly believes that her grandson is a newspaper reporter (he writes speeches for EPA), or offers him a sandwich every ninety seconds or so? It is part of her outsize charm, or her bad hearing, or a certain self-centeredness which has characterized her all her life. Alas, Daniel knows the real story and the storm that’s coming soon. So does his mother Ellen (Marilyn Bennett) and her husband (Michael T. Platt), whose jobs it will soon be to crawl into the pit with Gladys.
Alzheimer’s kills by inches. As the play opens, Gladys is well enough to indulge her fierce independence. She lives alone (Daniel has an apartment in the back) and operates a tiny art gallery in Greenwich Village. Lonergan examines her deterioration, and the effect it has on her family, with a microscope. Her daughter Ellen suffers more than anyone because Gladys is first and foremost her responsibility. They get into a folie á deux over Gladys’ insistence on feeding table scraps to the dog. Gladys tries to feed the dog and Ellen stops her and explains why she doesn’t want her to feed the dog, and the Gladys tries to feed the dog again and Ellen stops her again and finally Ellen is ready to take a bite out of the wall and Gladys sits baffled by her anger. You’ve seen this, in your own family or in the family of someone close to you, or maybe you’ve done this. The play is full of similar minutely observed, beautifully rendered moments.
Since Alzheimer’s deadly endgame is inevitable, there isn’t much of a story arc. In her Waverly Gallery, Gladys displays the work of a loopy New England artist (newcomer Tom Eisman), whose delusions come without the assistance of brain plaque. The landlord evicts Gladys’ shop, ostensibly to make room for a breakfast café. Daniel carries on a relationship with a harridan, with predictable results. But these are all variations on the same story, which is the public dying of Gladys Green as her memory, her ability to make sense of the world and finally her personality dissolve into little puddles of plaque.
Lonergan’s carefully told story deserves a subtle and believable production, and Didactic by and large delivers. Gavigan’s understated performance is superb. We understand immediately that he wishes he was a hundred miles away from his grandmother and feels guilty about it. McKenna’s Gladys is a symphony of precisely choreographed tics, hesitations and mistaken impressions. Her slide toward incoherence, and death is as inevitable as the death throes of a small animal in the coils of a snake. Bennett, like the other actors, brings a wonderful specificity to her role, and we can see her not only as the burdened daughter but as a busy doctor and as a woman, abandoned by one husband and now determined to control her environment.
Eisman, as the artist, takes a role which could have been a throwaway and makes it something interesting and dangerous. It is an impressive debut, and suggests an actor with sufficient imagination to leaven and liven a well-drawn character.
Platt is the production’s weak point. It’s a shame, since he has a wonderful voice and has done fine work developing the character. But his timing is significantly off, and in this delicate production the effect is like hurling a bowling ball at Hummel figurines. Directors Carroll and Edwards have put a premium on precise wordplay, even to the extent of having actors talk over each other. Their approach makes sense, but when an actor is out of sync, as Platt is here, the consequences are significant. Perhaps later in the run Platt and the other actors will be on the same page.
Subtle, precise and honest, The Waverly Gallery and Didactic’s immensely likeable performance of it, fulfills the highest moral purpose of theater: to promote understanding.
- Where: DC Arts Center, 2438 18th Street NW, Washington DC
- When: until December 15. Thursdays through Saturdays at 7.30. Sundays at 3. Additional show on Wednesday, December 12, at 7.30.
- Tickets: $20
- Info: Visit the website.