Aunt's diary furnishes the material for show

THEATER

April 15, 2004|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

This is a story that begins with an inherited piece of furniture and ends with a one-woman show, Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn, performed by an acclaimed Broadway actress.

The piece of furniture is a breakfront, inherited in 1989 by Ellen Cassedy, a free-lance writer and former Baltimorean now living in Takoma Park. The one-act show, Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn, which debuted in New York in November, will be presented at the Theatre Project April 26-27.

The inspirational breakfront belonged to Cassedy's great-aunt, Jessie Sylvester, a New Yorker who spent 59 years as a secretary for the Society of Automotive Engineers. "The top drawer is one of those things that pulls out and turns into a desk," Cassedy explains. "There's a little leather writing surface, and then these little pigeonhole drawers, and in one of them was a stack of 8 1/2 -by-11-inch paper, folded the long way into a little book. Closely written, in pencil, in a very fine hand, was this diary my great-aunt had kept in the late 1970s, when she was in her late 70s."

Cassedy stayed up until 2 a.m. reading the diary. What held her interest wasn't any kind of tell-all expose. Instead, the diary contained what she describes as a chronicle of the "completely ordinary, totally pedestrian activities" that filled her great-aunt's days after she retired - everything from shopping for groceries to washing dishes, from sitting in the park to attending classes at a local senior center.

"I was absolutely mesmerized by this account of these very small activities and by the fierce sense of dignity," Cassedy says. "I felt she really had something to teach us all about persistence and finding beauty in life and keeping going even in the face of obstacles. She had very tough things to confront and she confronted them with a quiet elegance and modest humility: The loss of family and friends, the death of her sister, the decline of her neighborhood and really the loss of her job. She had to find new ways to find meaning in life and she did that."

Cassedy - whose writing experience ranges from co-founding an organization of office workers called 9to5 (which helped inspire the 1980 movie, 9 to 5) to serving as a speechwriter in the Clinton White House - decided that a one-woman play would be the best way to ensure that Sylvester's voice would be heard.

The result, Beautiful Hills of Brooklyn, intersperses passages from Sylvester's diary with excerpts from Walt Whitman's poem, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," which Sylvester had studied in a poetry therapy class at the senior center.

"It is a huge, rhapsodic ode to the sweep of humanity," Cassedy says of Whitman's poem. "The contrast with what my aunt was writing couldn't be more different. ... This woman who finds comfort in the repetitious nature of her life, but also, she was thinking about the fact that every one of us - no matter how small - helps to contribute to the sweep of humanity."

The role of Sylvester is played by Joanna Merlin, a New York actress and teacher, who created the role of Tzeitel in Fiddler on the Roof, served as director Harold Prince's casting director for many years and can currently be seen in the recurring role of a judge on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.

In an e-mail interview, Merlin recalled initially reading Beautiful Hills and thinking, "Is this about buying cans of tuna fish and chopped chuck? How could it be theatrical?" But then, she adds, "I read it again and started to weep."

Merlin hopes that, particularly in our youth-oriented culture, the performance will give audiences an increased appreciation for "what it must feel like to be alone at an advanced age. ... We rarely hear the voices of the Jessie Sylvesters of the world, who live small, ordinary, but courageous lives."

A similar sentiment moved Rebecca Hoffberger, founder of the American Visionary Art Museum, to help bring the one-woman show to Baltimore, where it will serve as a kind of theatrical companion piece for the museum's continuing exhibit, Golden Blessings of Old Age.

"It was the perfect confluence," says Hoffberger, who has known Cassedy for almost two decades. "[The play is] yet another manifestation that old age can be an amazing blessing."

Also in conjunction with the performance, the University of Maryland School of Social Work will hold a seminar titled, "The Use of Poetry in Working with the Elderly," at 12:15 p.m. April 26 at the school, 525 W. Redwood St. Sondra Brandler, who will conduct the seminar, led the poetry class where Sylvester studied Whitman's poem; she now serves as coordinator of the social work program at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island. (The seminar is free and open to the public, but reservations are required. Call 410-706-7794.)

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