Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 1999
"The Waverly Gallery" is an exciting chance to see legendary actress Eileen Heckart give a fascinating performance as octogenarian Gladys Green who is alive and kicking, but whose brain is slowly being consumed by Alzheimer's Disease. And that's about it. Playwright Kenneth Lonergan is so obsessed with telling Gladys' story and creating her character that he has devoted little time and energy to developing the other characters or even much of a plot.
The last years of Gladys's life are seen through the eyes of her adult grandson, Daniel (Josh Hamilton). He is twenty-something and a writer who has a penchant for hooking up with dippy dames. He feels caught between is love for his grandmother, his love for his parents, and his own life, but we really see so little of his own life that that struggle is harder to empathize with.
Daniel's mother Ellen (Maureen Anderman) is Gladys's daughter. Now there is a relationship worth looking at. How does a woman feel when the mother she has loved, fought with, and depended on all of their life suddenly vanishes before her eyes? Well, you're not going to learn from this play. Lonergan either is or was at some point, a young man and he is not going to waste his time with the mother/daughter relationship. In fact he really doesn't explore the mother son relationship between Daniel and Ellen either.
The slim plot of this play balances between Gladys's loss of self, and the loss of her Greenwich Village art gallery - the Waverly Gallery. She has never signed a lease and so the owner of the building (Stephen Mendillo) evicts her. This does not help Gladys's mental state, but her loved ones seem frozen and unable to cope with either their loss or hers.
Wandering haplessly through this mix are Mark Blum as Ellen's husband Howard, and Anthony Arkin as Don Bowman, a young artist from eastern Massachusetts who is the last artist to exhibit at the Waverly Gallery. He lives in the back of the gallery for a while, when he discovers its a lot farther from Boston to New York than he thought. This gives you an indication of the character's intellect. It also gives the building owner the perfect excuse for eviction - zoning laws don't allow the storefront gallery to be used as a dwelling.
Director Scott Ellis has very little do to. Lonergan's script basically calls for a lot of sitting and talking. Just to liven things up a bit, the actors rearrange the handsome set of artsy metal chairs for every scene. That way they're sitting in a slightly different pattern for their next conversation.
What Ellis, Lonergan and this cast do very well indeed is capture the rhythm of family conversation - the crosstalk, the squabbling. How do you talk to someone who has lost their mind? How do you listen when they can't hear? How to you avoid treating a person like an object, an adult like a child? These are the questions Lonergan's dialogue explores deftly and sometimes in ways that make you laugh out loud because it is a better release than tears.
Heckart is wonderful. I had to keep reminding myself that she couldn't really be suffering from Alzheimer's because otherwise she couldn't be acting, therefore she had to be acting, and very well too. The rest of the cast are fine folks and well regarded actors. They just have so little to do that passing judgement would be wrong.
Lonergan must have known someone who suffered from this most horrible and terrifying of diseases. He knew this person and he felt he must write. In Gladys, he has given us a perfect portrait of a woman clinging to sanity while her mind and her world are slowly and cruelly taken from her. At the end Lonergan's Daniel says that he wants us to know that this did happen to this woman, and that no amount of mental will or bodily strength could have saved her. Well, that may have been a revelation to Lonergan at some point in his life, but it is a fact we all live with too immediately to have it be high drama as it is presented. I could go to the dementia ward of any of our local long-term care facilities and find more drama than Lonergan presents on this stage.
"The Waverly Gallery" runs through August 22 on the Nikos Stage at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. The show runs just under two hours with one intermission. Call the box office at 413-597=3400 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 1999