Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, April 2007

If you like your end-of-life stories filtered through a homey Hallmark haze, then you will love Tom Ziegler’s Grace and Glorie now being given a charmingly honest production at the Copake Theatre Company.

It is not surprising to learn that Hallmark developed Grace and Glorie as a made-for-TV movie starring Gena Rowlands and Diane Lane back in 1998, shortly after its successful off-Broadway run with Estelle Parsons and Lucie Arnaz in the title roles. It was and remains very popular with the sentimental crowd, and that is an affection genuinely won by this well-constructed little play and its two well-fleshed out characters to whom it is easy to relate and sympathize.

Grace Stiles (Chase Crosley) is 90 years old and dying. Gloria Whitmore (Diedre Bollinger) (Grace calls her Glorie after a hymn her mother used to sing about the search for grace and glory) is an uptight yuppie Hospice volunteer who comes to visit her and do what she can to make this “special time of life” easy for her. Old age is not for sissies and dying is certainly a prospect to buckle the knees of the bravest of four-star generals. Even someone with a strong faith, like Grace, finds that they love this mortal coil too much to leave it without a fight and a few farewell tears.

Ziegler glosses over much of the real ugliness of terminal illness. Having watched my father die of cancer, I can tell you that it is not a lovely peaceful transition. There is terrible pain and the utter degradation of the individual who is passing, not to mention overwhelming helplessness on the part of the caregiver. Dying is as different from living as death is from life, and nothing you have learned can prepare your for it.

Gloria has learned everything hospice has to teach her, and she has dealt with death head-on. Grace has buried her parents, her husband, and all five of her sons, but she is not prepared for her own mortality. Together these two very different women – Grace is an illiterate farmer, Gloria holds her MBA from Harvard – tackle this great unknown with differing degrees of horror and humor.

Two years ago I railed against the “elderly people as lovable puppies” school of modern theatre, as espoused by Over The River and Through the Woods and shows of its ilk. Then I wrote: “Older people need to ‘unpack’ their lives and look at their flow in order to try to understand where they have been, who they are, and what, if anything, they feel they have accomplished.” This is exactly what Grace and Gloria both are doing throughout Ziegler’s play. They are doing it for different reasons and at different times of life, but they both have plenty of baggage to sort through, and as they sift through the wedding gowns, business suits, maternity dresses, and well-worn cardigans, we learn how interesting and important the lives of two ordinary women can be.

Director Carl Ritchie, who is also the Artistic Director of the Copake Theatre Company, selected Grace and Glorie with Crosley in mind - the two had worked together last year on a successful production of Driving Miss Daisy - and he was lucky to find in Bollinger an equally skilled performer who compliments and contrasts Crosley perfectly.

Crosley is 77 years old, and nothing is done to make her look anything but her age. She plays Grace with grace, and dignity, revealing the honor that comes of an unglamorous life well-lived.

Bollinger is much, much better at the realistic quiet moments and the expression of high drama than she is at the rather forced moments of slap-stick comedy Ziegler and Ritchie have created.

I am not quite sure why Ziegler felt the need for all the “funny stuff” – which mostly consists of poor Gloria burning and injuring herself as she attempts to master the technology of a water pump and a wood-burning cook stove. The parts of this production that I liked best were the quiet times when Grace and Gloria were just talking. There was a sweet and genuine rapport between the two women which I would like to believe existed in real life and not just on stage. I felt as if Bollinger and Crosley were helping and supporting each other as actresses and not just as characters in a play.

Real or merely the “magic of the theatre” Ritchie’s deft direction must have played a hand in making the actresses and the characters so comfortable and realistic. His cozy set, depicting the little cottage on what was once Grace’s family farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, is warm with the golden honey color of well-worn wood. The real cast-iron cook stove, on loan from the Good Time Stove Company is handsome and adds greatly to the charm of the set. Gloria’s encounter with it brought vividly to mind Betty MacDonald’s description of tackling a similar behemoth in her delightful book The Egg and I.

The show did move at a leisurely pace – I imagine that it could have been brought in about 10 or 15 minutes shorter than its running time on opening night – and while I was intermittently aware of the slow pace, I ultimately came away feeling that that was the speed at which this cast needed to play it, and that it worked.

This was my first trek down to the southern climes of Copake, a hefty drive from my home in Williamstown, but certainly a worthwhile jaunt in terms of theatrical quality and entertainment value. The historic Copake Grange has its own quirks as a performance space, but the company seems to be settling in well and if the delicious spread of home-made pie, brownies, and cookies served up at intermission was any indication of community support – the company has received a warm welcome indeed from the Copake community.

The Copake Theatre Company production of Grace and Glorie runs Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 5 p.m. through May 13, at the historic Copake Grange, Empire Road at Route 7A, Copake, NY. The show runs two and a half hours and is suitable for children 10 and up. Tickets are available at Dad’s Diner in Copake or by calling 518-325-1234.

copyright Gail M. Burns, 2007

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