Review: Family tests its mettle in savvy play 'The Waverly Gallery'

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LENOX — The explosion comes roughly midway through the second act of Kenneth Lonergan's compassionate, witty play, "The Waverly Gallery."

Ellen (Elizabeth Aspenlieder in a masterly, meticulously crafted performance in an otherwise less-than-masterly production at Shakespeare & Company) is sitting in the living room of her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment glancing through the pages of a magazine while an all-too-familiar chaos is raging around her. Her mother, Gladys (Annette Miller in an uneven, often uncertain performance that doesn't begin to take hold until the end of the first act), a once vital, socially and politically engaged woman who is slipping into old age as gracefully as her rapidly encroaching dementia will permit. Her conversation ranges over territory she's been over again and again and again — her concern over a dog that belongs to Ellen and her husband, Howard (Michael F. Toomey); Ellen's ability to cook; her future after she is forced to leave an art gallery she runs in Greenwich Village.

"I think she's gotten worse," Ellen remarks to her adult son, Daniel (David Gow), with a blend of recognition and resignation. And as Gladys, armed with a plate of crackers and the best of intentions, begins moving into the hallway to feed the unseen dog, Ellen, not for the first time, snaps at her mother not to feed the dog.

"Mom, she can't help it," Daniel says with a patience and understanding he himself will lose later in an emotionally agonizing sequence with Gladys that will drive him to desperation.

"Well, I can't help it either. I can't stand it," Aspenlieder's Ellen says in an explosive tearful burst of anger, resentment, frustration, helplessness before she charges out of the room. It's a stunning moment; one that Aspenlieder's Ellen has been building toward in her brilliantly calibrated performance. Ellen is a housewife, cook, mother, daughter, psychiatrist who is feeling the mounting weight of those responsibilities, particularly when it comes to Gladys. In Aspenlieder's nuanced performance, you can sense how much Ellen's determination to do and be good governs and guides her; the toll all this is beginning to take; the degree to which her patience and love are pushed and tested; until finally, in this moment, it becomes all too much. She gives herself the physical separation she needs. And when she reenters the room a few minutes later, she is recovered; more fully and resolutely in control; the anchor for a family that is struggling to keep things together while the matriarch clings frantically to a reality of her own, even while everything else is in splinters.

"I don't understand what happened to me," Miller's Gladys says with a childlike ingenuousness that, in its way, invites you to put your arms around her and assure her everything will be all right.

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The journey toward understanding can be unforgiving, wearing, but in the family Lonergan has created in "The Waverly Gallery" — a family not unlike his own in which he, like his alter-ego Daniel, watched the mental deterioration of his once vital grandmother — it also is a journey marked by humor, wit and love.

It's an arduous journey that asks a lot; not only of the family but, at least in this production, the audience, as well. The pacing is often sluggish, effortful, not at all crisp or sharp. The rhythm is uneven. For all its commitment and effort, director Tina Packer's production moves through a first act in which meaningful connections are, at best, sporadic. You feel every minute of the production's nearly three-hour — minus a 15-minute or so intermission — running time.

Through most of the first act, Miller's work is technically accomplished. It's not until a scene near the end of the first act, during a dinner at Ellen's apartment, that Miller finds a touching, raw, open vulnerability in Gladys that carries her, and us, through a second act that is, on the whole more emotionally compact and affecting. Miller finds meaningful detail as Gladys is enveloped by her own reality; her own fears. Aspenlieder and Gow have an especially affecting scene in which an emotionally spent Daniel and his mother move their familial relationship to a deeper level of connection.

As Howard, Toomey rarely gets past surface manifestations. David Bertoldi is acceptable as a fish-out-of-water Boston-area wannabe artist who is far more successful in his mind than in practice.

Gow's Daniel, who narrates the family story, is amiable but elusive; difficult to read.

In "The Waverly Gallery," Lonergan explores meaningful issues around family — what it means to be a family; what are the obligations especially when faced with a situation that demands everything it can of family members; how do we face mortality. It's a play about forging bonds; connecting dots. Lonergan applies that skill in masterly fashion. How ironic that, on the whole, this production does not.


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