Imagine living in an apartment across the hall from your gregarious and artsy 80-year-old grandmother as she slowly loses touch with reality and your less-than-sympathetic Upper West Side family is driven to total distraction by her erratic behavior.
Playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s “memory play” is an early chapter from his hardnosed Bronx upbringing as the son of an Irish doctor father and a Jewish psychiatrist mother who were probably a less-than-wealthy generation away from the Greenwich Village lifestyle of The Waverly Gallery‘s main character, Gladys Green.
Lonergan, best known for co-writing the 2002 film Gangs of New York, penned this autobiographical tale of family angst and anger in 1999, and later won a Tony Award for it in 2019 when Elaine May came out of a 60-year stage-acting hiatus at the age of 86 and defined the role of Gladys Green, a former Village activist and lawyer who runs a not-so-hot gallery after losing her husband.
Native New Yorker Amy Fox delivers an authentic version of Gladys as she reaches deep into her personal and professional experience as a clinical psychologist with a specialty in geriatric behavioral health to channel a confused victim of Alzheimer’s disease.
Fox’s real-life husband, Tom Doty, provides the comic relief as the loud-talking son-in-law Howard Fine, who overcompensates for Gladys’ hearing loss, while his angry wife, Ellen Fine, played to an unsympathetic whine by Stephanie Mull, is forced to shout Howard down over the weekly meatloaf dinner she hosts.
Ellen, Gladys’ psychiatrist daughter, parks her professional sensitivity at the door and treats her mother with a resentful level of disdain that seems to set the tone for family encounters with Gladys and their troubled attempts to negotiate a semblance of sanity.
”We’re liberal Upper West Side atheistic Jews,” says Ellen’s son Daniel Reed in a major moment of frustration as the option of sending Gladys to a nursing home is taken off the table. Daniel is played by Matthew Line as the introverted, longhair speechwriter who becomes the voice for Lonergan’s remembrance of his grandmother’s slow decline into madness as he struggles to cope with the fractured intergenerational family’s failed attempts to cope with Gladys’ late-night manic episodes and search for her long-deceased dog Zique the quivering Dalmatian.
Liz Elkind plays a minor role as Dawn, a struggling artist from New England who lives out of her car while pitching a sympathetic Gladys on exhibiting her not-ready-for–Greenwich Village impressionist work, which affords Dawn an opportunity to crash in the gallery’s back closet while Gladys waits for her art to sell.
Kudos to Director Nic Sigman and Assistant Director Devin Taylor for crafting a quirky turn-of-the-century set with artifacts and personal touches that effectively used every corner of the stage, even though the frequent shifts between the gallery and family home were sometimes clunky and time-consuming and left a piece of art off center.
The one missing ingredient in all the angst and anger of The Waverly Gallery is love! No one in the family of psychiatrists and misguided caregivers seems able to muster up a scintilla of love and compassion for Gladys’ end-of-life dilemma.
This earnest performance by one of the country’s oldest community theater groups begs for a talk-back session to circle the wagons and examine the audience’s post-COVID reality of senior isolation and mental health decline. The Waverly Gallery needs to inspire that serious conversation for everyone who has a Gladys in the family.
Running Time: Two hours including a 15-minute intermission.
The Waverly Gallery plays through February 12, 2023 (Friday and Saturday at 8:00 pm, Sunday at 3 pm), at the Potomac Playmakers Performing Arts Center located at 17303 West Washington Street, Hagerstown, MD. All tickets are $18 at the box office and can be ordered online.