In the small Waverly Gallery in Greenwich Village, a onetime social activist and atheistic Jewish grandmother is losing her mind. And not just her mind, but her hearing and her memory to the ravages of time and Alzheimer’s, her gallery to an expanding hotel and the patience of her family as they try desperately to care for her as her condition deteriorates. Indeed, as her grandson Daniel describes it, Gladys Green’s family must watch as her mind, like everything else in her life, is “smashed to pieces” and her body becomes a mere shell of what was.
But what can be done with all these shattered pieces? What, if anything, can be gained from all these losses, these family tragedies? And what, ultimately, is the power of our memories?
Up-and-coming playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s semi-autobiographical play The Waverly Gallery poses these questions in a richly-woven text on losses, families, aesthetics and memories. In bringing the play to the Loeb Ex this weekend, director Rebecca R. Kastleman ’05 attempts to explore these themes in a new, abstract and surrealistic production.
The play is framed by Daniel’s narratives, as he “rides the waves” of his memories of his grandmother’s final days. Kastleman says her experimentation with memory and the “selective images” it creates is most apparent in the play’s set design. The umbrellas onstage that “serve to delineate an abstract, surreal and hopefully beautiful space,” are the most prominent feature of the “semi-abstracted” set.
Overlapping and simultaneous dialogue is also a distinct feature of Lonergan’s play expanded upon in this production. During Daniel’s monologues, for example, delivered from a balcony wrapped around the upper level of the stage in the Ex, the cast below simultaneously echoes words and phrases of his speech to create an almost trance-like effect.
But the abstract or surreal elements of the play emphasized in this production are often grounded by Lonergan’s insistence on humor.
“Comedy is absolutely a focus,” Kastleman says, “and a lot of the comic aspects have come organically. These characters are exaggerated family archetypes.”
Indeed, Lonergan doesn’t shy from sharp dialogue or toying with stereotypes. Daniel’s mother, Ellen, is a trice-married doctor, her husband a shrink, or more generally, as Daniel says of himself and his clan: “We’re liberal Upper West Side atheistic Jewish intellectuals—and we really like German choral music.”
In the opening scenes as well, Gladys’s selective memory and confused interpretation of conversations make for some amusing, albeit uneasy, moments. The comedy remains tenuous, however, for as the play progresses and Gladys’s condition deteriorates, “what begins as uncomfortably funny,” as Kastleman says, “ends up being just uncomfortable.”
Kastleman, a performer with Harvard’s improvisational comedy group the Immediate Gratification Players (IGP), is no stranger to comic delivery. She says the training of IGP has helped not only in the play’s more humorous moments, but in the listening and response between cast members, and their spontaneity and risk-taking. She also emphasizes the collaborative nature of the production and the ensemble building that has allowed the cast to “come up with ideas of doing things in dramatically different ways.”
“The chemistry I have in the cast is incredible and that breeds a lot of comedy,” she says. Indeed, the small cast of five—including Gladys Green, played by Rebecca J. Levy ’06, another IGP performer—joke constantly during downtime at rehearsals. “In the extreme scenes we’re in,” Levy says, “and in dealing with a span of three generations, it helps ease the tension when we know we can be comfortable and joke around with each other.”
Though the crucial task of creating a sense of family was not difficult for this tightly-knit cast, establishing a sense of generations among all college-aged actors proved more challenging. The production benefited from the expertise of Lecturer on Dramatic Arts Claire Mallardi, who helped the cast with movement skills, and from professional old age makeup consultation.
But Kastleman says these generational differences and the diversity of characters in Lonergan’s play were important in her decision to bring the work to the Harvard stage.
“It’s easy in college theater to do plays that students can perform and aren’t outside of their universe. But [this play] allows us to create empathy with people we don’t normally have contact with.”
Kastleman also cites the relative newness of the play, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2000, and the possibility of creating a truly innovative production as reasons for her choice of the production. The naturalistic language of Lonergan also served as a draw, as well as the possibility of introducing the promising playwright to new audiences.
But ultimately, for Kastleman, the play’s themes of memory—as both beautiful and necessary to our sense of identity and our future—remain the focus of her production.
“If I had one hope for my audience,” she says. “it would be that they [leave the production and] re-imagine some memory and say, ‘That really was wonderful and beautiful.’”