If Wendy Wasserstein were alive and well today, you’d imagine she would be writing such warm, witty and cannily perceptive plays as Susan Miller’s 20th Century Blues, a world premiere at CATF under the assured direction of Ed Herendeen.
It’s downright unheard of to see four actresses of a certain age onstage at the same time, much less in a play about such taboos as aging and female invisibility, as well as the vagaries of time and history.
What Miller has created is a full, funny play that is generous of heart, attributes found in her earlier work, notably My Left Breast, which was about breast cancer and so much more.
In 20th Century Blues, four women who met in jail in 1968 (they were arrested at a protest) gather every year for 40 years in the studio of esteemed photographer Danny (Betsy Aidem) for food and friendship and to take a portrait showing the passage of time—unvarnished, no make-up, air-brushing or Photoshop.
This year, they get together as usual, but one thing is different. Danny is getting a retrospective at MOMA (and an accompanying TED Talk) and she aims to display the portraits for the first time ever. She wants their permission—and the women have various responses to the request.
Beautiful and chic Sil (Alexandra Neil), a real estate broker, is in an industry that emphasizes youth and energy, and she is barely keeping it together after divorce and a down market, much less willing to have her wrinkles and frown lines writ large on a museum wall. Gabby (Kathryn Grody), a hippie-ish veterinarian, is the peacemaker of the group and thinks “why not?” especially if it makes a statement about older women disappearing and never being looked at once they hit middle age.
Mac (Franchelle Stewart Dorn), a venerated New York journalist, has mixed feelings. On one hand, she could use the publicity—having being recently forced into accepting retirement. To say the least of outspoken, opinionated Mac, she is not willing to go gentle into that good night. On the other hand, as a black lesbian who broke into the all-boys club of newspapers, she already is a symbol of gay, black and women’s rights—does she have the bandwidth to take on aging too?
The mood shifts when Danny shows them the portraits. As they look at themselves through the years, there is that shared, almost mystical feeling you get when you see old pictures of yourself and think “Damn. I was gorgeous. Why did I waste so much time hating my thighs or thinking I was hideous?”
20th Century Blues
closes July 31, 2016
Details and tickets
Baby boomers in the audience will think Miller eavesdropped into their conversations with friends, so authentic and piercing are the exchanges about growing old (which ain’t for sissies), trying to stay relevant, understanding the Millennials—who often are their children—and reflecting back on the 20th century. “Rock and roll, the space launch, Chernobyl. Tiananmen Square. The atomic bomb, Auschwitz. Japanese internment, the McCarthy hearings, AIDs. Brown V Board of Education,” they chant, adding in things like “American Bandstand” and the remote control.
20th Century Blues loses some momentum in unnecessary subplots concerning Danny’s frail and confused mother (Mary Suib) and her son Simon’s (Jason Babinsky) search for his biological mother. What, is it too revolutionary or crazy to just focus on four older women?
For all the funny lines and passionate life these women embody, there is a rueful sense as well. They are magnificent creatures—magnificently portrayed by the four actresses—but the reality is, they are in their 60s and society doesn’t really care. Except for Danny and her upcoming museum show, these women are fighting becoming relics—ignored, passed by, unhip. It’s not their generation anymore and that’s hard to take.
But, if you have to face encroaching obsolescence, you can’t be in better company than the women of 20th Century Blues.
20th Century Blues by Susan Miller . Director: Ed Herendeen . Cast: Betsy Aidem, Alexandra Neil, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Mary Suib, Kathryn Grody, Jason Babinsky. Set Design: David M. Barber. Costume Design: Therese Bruck. Lighting Design: D.M. Wood. Original Music and Sound Design: Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes. Projection Designer: Hannah Marsh. Technical Director Zack Hiatt. Production State Manager: Debra A. Acquavella. Produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.