Entertainment » Theatre

The Waverly Gallery

by Iris Fanger
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Jun 11, 2019
Annette Miller in "The Waverly Gallery" at Shakespeare & Company through July 14
Annette Miller in "The Waverly Gallery" at Shakespeare & Company through July 14  

Kenneth Lonergan's play, "The Waverly Gallery" is much in the news this week because octogenarian actor, Elaine May, appearing on Broadway this past season in a revival of the work, won the 2019 Tony Award for Leading Actress in a Play.

The 87-year-old May, a beloved star, was cast as Gladys Green, a feisty elder in the throes of Alzheimer's disease. Lonergan's drama, by turns alarming and poignant, yet often funny, premiered at Williamstown Theatre Festival in 1999 (followed by the Broadway production in 2000). Falling into the category of a "memory play," the chronicle records the decline and demise of the playwright's beloved grandmother.

Shakespeare & Company, based in the Lenox, has opened its 2019 summer season with "The Waverly Gallery," staged by Tina Packer, founder of the troupe in 1978 and director of the company until 2009. Packer must have felt a certain frisson at taking on "The Waverly Gallery," no less than her leading actor, Annette Miller, a veteran of 22 seasons at SS & Co, who plays the role of Gladys. (Disclosure: Miller and this writer are long-time friends).

The play opens with Gladys having lunch with her grandson, Daniel (David Gow) in the tiny, bleak Greenwich Village gallery, which she has run for 28 years. Like Gladys, the space is showing its age. A few bad paintings hang on the wall, and customers are long gone, even though Gladys prefers to spend her afternoons there, rather than cooped up in her nearby apartment.

As she speaks, she repeats the same questions and quips but rushes along in fear of stopping and losing her thoughts. Once a brilliant lawyer, social butterfly, and engaged with her family, Gladys is clearly aware that something is wrong, but intends to carry on as before, ignoring the diminishment of her mind. Over stage time covering 1989 to 1991, her dialogue is reduced from bright monologues to brief sentences that are filled with lapses while she searches for words she once knew.

Daniel who lives down the hall from Gladys is patient and loving with her, even though it's clear he has heard these same mistaken assumptions before. As the play continues, we meet Daniel's mother, Ellen (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) who is Gladys' daughter, and her husband, Howard (Michael F. Toomey), determined to care for their mother but increasingly frustrated about the difficulties of confronting her. The passage of time is marked by scenes at the weekly family dinners, with everyone talking at once, as they try to deal with Gladys' increasing confusion and unwillingness to consider any changes. One more character, the no-talent painter Don (David Bertolli), who wanders into the gallery and is offered a show by Gladys along with a place to sleep, becomes another sympathetic caregiver.

The production in Lenox is especially distinguished for portrayals by Miller as the woman charging ahead despite her inexplicable failings; by Aspenlieder as the daughter who wants desperately to do the right thing no matter the toll it takes on her, and by Gow as the grandson who fears for the future of his family. As narrator, he steps out of the frame of the setting to speak directly to the audience about the course of the events, but he cannot stand aside in his role as the grandson torn between needing his privacy and helping the grandmother he adores.

The play shifts into high gear in the second act when Miller, increasingly frail in an astonishing physical transformation as she ages, becomes unable to cope on her own. Aspenlieder, holding on to her sanity but breaking out into anger, is totally believable as the caregiver who has no choice but to keep on keeping on. By the end, when Gow tried to make sense of their ordeal, viewers in the audience at last Sunday's matinee sat totally silent, no doubt stunned by intimations of what their futures might bring. "And they loved each other so much," Gow as Daniel observes. "It makes you think it must be worth a lot to live."

"The Waverly Gallery" continues through July 14 with performances Thursday through Sunday at the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on the Shakespeare & Company campus in Lenox, Massachusetts. For more information, visit the Shakespeare & Company website.

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