By Roberta Silman
A splendid production of an impressive early effort from the talented writer Kenneth Lonergan.
The Waverly Gallery by Kenneth Lonergan. Directed by Tina Packer. Staged Shakespeare & Co in the Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, MA, through July 14.
One of my favorite movies of all time is You Can Count On Me by Kenneth Lonergan. The film stars Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney as siblings who have lost their parents in a terrible car accident. It reveals an uncanny, unique understanding of what loss can do to people, and it sticks in the mind as few movies do, even more than his acclaimed Manchester By the Sea. But until this recent revival of The Waverly Gallery, I didn’t realize Lonergan was such an accomplished playwright. Given the recent success of this play, now nearly twenty years old, I am sure we will be seeing more of his work revived.
The Waverly Gallery is an impressive early effort: clearly autobiographical, what some people call a “memory play” about the descent into dementia of Lonergan’s grandmother whose name in the play is Gladys Green. This rich part, both tragic and comic at the same time — as all terrific parts are — was portrayed by the 86 year old Elaine May in New York in a spectacular (I am told) return to the theater. In Lenox, Gladys is portrayed by the wonderful Annette Miller who has been starring at Shakespeare & Co for the last twenty years. She and her grandson Daniel, who is played by David Gow, are the reasons not to miss this production. There is an especially tender bond between the two (the grandson is clearly based on Lonergan, who started his career writing speeches for the EPA just as Daniel does) which resonates long after you have left the theater.
Once a lawyer, then the owner of the Waverly Gallery in Greenwich Village, Gladys was powerful and highly intelligent and fun-loving, a superb party-giver and a formidable presence. Slowly before her family’s horrified eyes, she is not only growing old, but also sinking into a dementia that is unpredictable, exasperating, and ultimately tragic. Yet she insists on living alone in her apartment around the corner from the gallery and going to “work” as much as she can. This consists of sitting alone, surrounded by paintings that seem to have been there forever, and waiting for someone to come in and look, and, hopefully, buy.
Into this life, which seems to make sense to no one but her, comes a young painter from Boston, one Don Bowman. Played by the splendid actor David Bertoldi, the character provides considerable comic and poignant relief, as he falls for Gladys’s promises that she will show his work to the world and that he will finally realize some success. In this thread, we see two desperate people feeding each others’ longings and dreams, and it is where Gladys alternately shines and droops most movingly, especially as she prepares for the opening of Don’s show that never really happens.
Because there is no real trajectory here, except Gladys’s descent into a world that no one but she can really understand, we are asked to sympathize with her only daughter Ellen, Ellen’s second husband Howard, and that very loyal grandson. But, since nothing really terrible happens as a result of Gladys’ confusion (although there is a hovering possibility), there were times, at least in this production, when the family’s reactions seemed excessively over the top. That makes it hard to feel the called-for commiseration. Yes, they are going crazy dealing with this woman who is fading before their very eyes. But do they have to yell so much? I guess some families do, but in my experience the sorrow is usually more muted and even sadder — because there is no shouting.
What was more interesting than some of the repetitive scenes of dinner at Ellen’s home were those few moments when Gladys’s past emerges and she startles us with memories, which are beautifully evoked by Miller. That’s where I wished that Lonergan had waited a few years before writing The Waverly Gallery. I felt that Gladys’s back story, only hinted at when she talked about the good life she had with her husband Herb, their adventures before the war, their flight from Germany at just the right time, and her continual hope that she “can get a job,” contained material that could have been brought to life by a more experienced hand. And that would have given this play more drama and heft.
Perhaps Lonergan, inspired by the amazing actresses playing Gladys, will revisit this complicated grandmother someday. For now, though, we must be grateful for what we have: a splendid production with all that we have come to expect from Shakespeare & Co: a very convincing set and imaginative lighting and superb acting by Miller, Gow and Bertoldi. The final scenes, which depict Gladys’s descent into raging insomnia and terminal bewilderment, are wrenching. Daniel’s speech about her last two years under her family’s roof not only generates the classic emotions of pity and fear, but also engenders empathy for others — whom, unfortunately, we all know –who are dealing with the ravages of this terrible disease.
Roberta Silman is the author of four novels, a short story collection and two children’s books. Her new novel, Secrets and Shadows (Arts Fuse review), is in its second printing and is available on Amazon and at Campden Hill Books. It was chosen as one of the best Indie Books of 2018 by Kirkus. A recipient of Fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, she has reviewed for The New York Times and The Boston Globe, and writes regularly for The Arts Fuse. More about her can be found at robertasilman.com and she can also be reached at email@example.com.