At Shakespeare & Company, 'The Waverly Gallery' spins a tale for our time
LENOX — Kenneth Lonergan's "The Waverly Gallery" is coming home to the Berkshires.
The play, which opened Off-Broadway in 2000 and just completed a hugely successful, Tony nominated Broadway revival, had its world premiere in the summer of 1999 at Williamstown Theatre Festival. The Scott Ellis-directed production starred Eileen Heckart in the pivotal role of Gladys Green, a former lawyer and leftist activist now in her 80s who runs a small gallery in Greenwich Village, and Maureen Anderson as her beleaguered daughter, Ellen Fine, a fiftysomething psychiatrist.
Now, "The Waverly Gallery" makes its way back to home turf with a new production at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, where it officially opens 3 p.m. Sunday after a series of previews that began Thursday. The production is scheduled to run through July 14.
"The Waverly Gallery" centers on Gladys, an outspoken firebrand leftist political activist who lived the Bohemian life in New York's Greenwich Village. Now, she is trying to stoke the fires of her younger days while she slips into the embers of age.
"... built on a delicate armature of memory and regret," playwright Jon Robin Baitz wrote in a 2000 article, "Small Theaters, Big Plays," that is reprinted as the forward to the paperback copy of Lonergan's script, "['The Waverly Gallery'] is a play about the slow-motion moment in a family when that which has been merely gnawing and difficult becomes tragic.
"There is an increasing panic as Gladys' family struggles for continuity and grace — and a solution (impossible), to the sad reality of watching someone you love disappear before your eyes."
"It deals with something we are all going to have to face, whether we like it or not," the production's director, Tina Packer, said in a news release; "getting old and losing our minds. The play is about time and how we meet the challenges that face us."
Annette Miller, who is playing Gladys, first read "The Waverly Gallery" 18 years ago but she wasn't ready for it then, she said in a recent pre-rehearsal interview at which she was joined by Elizabeth Aspenlieder, who plays Ellen, and by the production's associate director, Michelle Joyner.
"Sometimes," Miller said, "over time, you adapt and the 'islands' drift together."
It's a monumental role, not only in terms of time spent onstage but also in terms of learning frequently disjointed dialogue; repetitions — indicators of Gladys' slide.
"I don't think [Gladys] understands that she's confused," Miller said. "They say about [someone with] Alzheimer's that once you're there, you don't know you're there."
"There is no logic of thought," Joyner said. "I'm actually in love Gladys. I find her hilarious. And that's the crucial element. We have to love Gladys, become attached to her."
Acting is about objectives; finding and going after what a character needs and/or wants at any given moment in any given scene over the full course of a performance. Here, however, figuring out the objectives, let alone going after them, is an immense challenge, Miller said.
"How do you figure out the objectives?" Miller asked rhetorically. "No one is listening to me [Gladys] so the ball, so to speak, is never thrown to me. When I throw the ball, it [bounces] right back to me."
What has particularly drawn Miller to Gladys is the strength of her will. "She wants to stay in the game of life," Miller said. "This woman still wants to go full gallop."
"The Waverly Gallery" is inspired by events in Lonergan's own family and the struggles he and they faced as the family matriarch slipped away before their eyes.
"The themes are common to all of us," Packer said in the news release; a sentiment echoed by Joyner who noted that "everyone in the room" for the interview, as well as Packer, "has had some experience with [caregiving over time] and loss.
"We are all understanding this play as family," Aspenlieder said.
Miller and Aspenlieder have been down this onstage mother-daughter relationship path before, most notably in Shelagh Stevenson's "The Memory of Water" in the 2011-12 season. Miller's Vi was a ghost then. Her Gladys is all-too-real.
"There is a kind of unrelenting optimism in Ellen, something she's learned from Gladys," Aspenlieder said. "But we are all in a different relationship with each other because of Gladys. We struggle to find a normal balance. Through all of this hardship, one of the things we do is reminisce about Gladys in her younger days. It brings us joy to remember this way. We are simultaneously laughing and weeping."
An established actress, director and writer in her own right, Joyner says she is enjoying working with Packer.
"Tina was my first mentor," said Joyner, who recalled participating in a Shakespeare & Company intensive when she was a teen. The Westfield native moved to Los Angeles when she was a child. She married filmmaker Robert H. Egan in 2001. Together with their 19-year-old twin sons, Joyner and her husband have moved back to the Berkshires, where they live in South County.
"I contacted Tina after I came back," Joyner said. "She mentioned she was working on this play and it was tricky and felt she needed some support in the rehearsal room."
The two work in tandem, Joyner said. "We both give notes and we are mostly in agreement. If there is a big disagreement, I check with her before sharing with the cast. Working with her has been like a master class."
Packer says she is hopeful the play will stimulate conversation among theatergoers.
"I hope we have a lot of talkbacks," she said over the phone. "It's an important conversation to have. It's our duty to raise our children. What's new now is that children will have to take care of their parents."
"This is such an important story to tell," Aspenlieder said. "It's about life. It's about how we talk about death. It's a conversation I hope audience members will have after they leave the theater.
"For us, in the rehearsal room, we are laughing; we are crying; we are terrified; we are hopeful."
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