Facing life not worth living

Review: Family love eases the pain of a grandmother's coming undone.

November 10, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Petite and perfectly coifed, Vivienne Shub's Gladys Green is, physically, the most together character on stage. But Kenneth Lonergan's The Waverly Gallery is about Gladys' mental state, which is deteriorating rapidly.

Lonergan based his off-Broadway drama - receiving a moving mid-Atlantic premiere at Everyman Theatre - on his grandmother, who died of Alzheimer's disease. The "A" word is never mentioned, however, which may be because The Waverly Gallery is primarily a play about familial love and responsibility, not a disease-of-the-week docudrama.

Still, Shub's Gladys is at the center of it, and under Vincent M. Lancisi's astute direction, the 80-something actress does a glorious job portraying her 80-something character.

We first encounter Gladys chattering away as she shares a bite with her grown grandson, Daniel, in the Greenwich Village art gallery she has operated for 28 years. From her often repetitive conversation, we learn that she's a woman who has always loved company, always loved to entertain. And, Shub's animated, cheerful delivery leaves no doubt that she has always been the life of the party.

"I love to talk to people! I was never shy!" she bubbles on. Merely being in her presence makes you smile. And that, of course, makes her eventual downward spiral all the more heartbreaking. Similarly, by offering a glimpse of the smart, capable woman Gladys once was, Shub accentuates the horror when her character becomes increasingly confused and upset.

Daniel, who appears to be a stand-in for the playwright, narrates the play, and as portrayed by Josh Thelin, there couldn't be a gentler, more empathetic guide. Nor could there be a more devoted grandson. He's far more patient with his beloved grandmother than either his mother (Gladys' daughter) or his stepfather - though both are psychiatrists.

Daniel lives in the same apartment building as Gladys, and a second-act scene in which she rings his doorbell every few hours, from midnight on, is harrowing. "Her mind was smashed to pieces, and the person she used to be hadn't really been around for a long time. ... But the pieces were still her pieces," he tells us after recounting a nightmare about Gladys that is all too real.

As Gladys' daughter, Paula Gruskiewicz successfully portrays a frequently unsympathetic woman, whose lack of patience doesn't necessarily denote a lack of love, as we discover in her final, tearful scene with Daniel. As her husband, Stan Weiman brings warmth to a man whose occasional lack of tact cannot obscure a caring heart.

There's one other character as well - the last artist to have a show in Gladys' gallery. He's not too bright; to the end, he insists Gladys' only problem is a bad hearing aid. Bradley Thoennes' bumpkin-like portrayal, however, turns him into the only character lacking credibility.

The production's sole other misstep is designer Daniel Ettinger's dark, awkward turntable set, with its cramped playing spaces.

The Waverly Gallery isn't the easiest play to sit through - particularly if you've ever watched a loved one succumb to this awful disease. I'd like to be able to say that Lonergan's drama is ultimately uplifting. And indeed, Daniel's final monologue does end on a life-affirming note. But as this play demonstrates, although medical science has found a way to prolong life, it is often unable to make that life worth living.

Waverly Gallery

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays; through Dec. 2

Tickets: $15-$25

Call: 410-752-2208

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