I was privileged to spend this past weekend in the company of not three, but five masterful women actors, if you add to Toys in the Attic the Saturday matinee I caught of Grace and Glorie at the Bath House Cultural Center. Everything about advance reviews I'd read of Tom Ziegler's script made me ready to resist it: Tales about the triumph of the human spirit rarely reflect either triumph or spirit to me, partly because of my own cynicism and partly because their purveyors aren't so much interested in introducing me to universal truths as flogging me with cloying assumptions. Death sucks, right? Right. Let's show a way we can transcend it that'll leave our dainties -- our egotism, our stubborn clinging to individuality -- snow-white. All that's washed out by this cheap detergent is the stain of fearful, impending change.
Grace and Glorie has a lot to do with both fear of what death might mean and mundane household maintenance chores -- here, conducted by a well-meaning if condescending hospice volunteer (Susan Sergeant) for a contrarian, illiterate mountain farm woman (Beverly May) who's dying of cancer. Grace, the Appalachian survivor, has just been released back into the care of her moronic grandson Roy, which means she's spending the last of her pain-wracked days alone, forced to hold her bladder for hours at a time because she cannot rise from the bed. Gloria is a former New York lawyer who's got a tragic loss in her recent past that she's itching to ditch through good works. She's a stranger to chickens, well pumps, and Miracle Whip; Grace doesn't cotton to deli lobster salad, face makeup, and video cameras. Wait, let me guess -- these very different women have something to learn from each other.
Grace and Glorie perhaps impressed me most because I was truly affected by the recipe even after I predicted each ingredient. Much of the credit goes to the actors, who sparkle under the direction of Cynthia Hestand: Sergeant has found a perfect vessel for her polished but tense actor-ish stage presence in the role of Gloria, while Dallas Theater Center veteran and Obie Award-winner Beverly May is the lovely essence of old, but not necessarily wise, age as Grace. For all its expressed desire to teach us some compensating lesson for the chaos, sadness, and unfairness of life, Grace and Glorie dwells much on the foreboding presence of death, on the sweaty fear of closing your eyes to sleep because, however unhappy you are, you're afraid you might not wake up. It's not so much about solving that terror of non-being as about sharing it. In that sense, old age isn't so much a victory as a respite, a privileged extension for more time to balance the books.
"Old people are expected to give advice," says the sublime Beverly May as Grace, with weariness and uncertainty and a hopefulness that she can find wisdom if she adds up the years and experiences she hasn't much thought about until now. Because of May's gloriously unsentimental performance, we understand that balancing all the stuff we've learned with everything we can't know is the most important debt we have to settle.