By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Just opened at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas is a play called Close Ties. The title is misleading, for the truth is, the connections among the members of the Frye family in Elizabeth Diggs' two-act New England drama are terribly frayed. In CDT's heart-tugging if sometimes too sentimental production, Bess and Watson Frye (Sue Loncar, Rick F. Espaillat), a well-to-do couple in their late 40s, arrive for their usual summer vacation at the family's wood-beamed getaway in the Berkshires. Bess' elderly mother, Josephine (Midge Verhein), dominates the household. When she's not nagging Bess about meaningless details, Josephine putters amiably around her beloved garden and natters to herself (and her dead husband) as she carries out kitchen chores or dabs paint on another portrait of the peonies outside the window. The four Frye grandchildren, three girls in their 20s and Thayer (J.T. McClure), a sweet but rowdy teenage boy, dote on bossy old Grandma but bicker endlessly among themselves.
Right away it's apparent that this family is on the verge of a crisis. Josephine puts up a good front, but she exhibits signs of senility (the play was written in the early '80s, so the word "Alzheimer's" never is used). Good daughter Bess, jittery with guilt and good intentions, tries to cover for her mother's forgetfulness. Stolid Watson presses for putting Josephine in a good nursing home.
Around the rustic dining table, oldest granddaughter Anna (Stephanie Young), visiting the family to escape an uncaring husband and a brood of her own brats, goes around and around with her sourpuss middle sister Evelyn (Elizabeth Van Winkle) about the Grandma problem and their own exaggerated personal miseries. Baby sis Connie (Amelia Reinwald), studying nursing, listens quietly from the sidelines and finally explodes at the selfishness of her siblings. Little brother Thayer, bless him, offers to skip high school to stay at the cabin all winter and take care of the old lady as long as he's needed.
Enter the catalyst to these dilemmas, a sweet, whey-faced physicist named Ira Bienstock (Bill Sebastian). He's in love with the brainy, prickly Evelyn, though she's still smarting from a recent divorce. His presence in the mountain retreat provides everyone, even stubborn old Josephine, with a fresh perspective on all their woes.
If this sounds like a Hallmark Hall of Fame Thanksgiving special, that's just about all it is content-wise. The Fryes argue and apologize, make a lot of breakfasts and slam a lot of doors. Grandma Josephine pipes up with colorful insults: "You have a memory shorter than good weather." Each character takes a moment with her to unburden him or herself of emotional baggage, scenes acted unevenly by the CDT cast, who make no attempt to sound like Yankees.
In this play, there's more hugging than a cold night on Walton Mountain. Everybody, but everybody, cries. And at the end, when Grandma heads for what is creepily termed "assisted living," as if there really were such a thing, there's not a dry eye in the audience either.
That's because what this play lacks in originality or dramatic profundity, it makes up for in its universal themes of aging, independence and the meaning of family. There aren't many works for the stage about what it really means to be old. The Gin Game, On Golden Pond and The Oldest Living Graduatetop a short list. Close Ties isn't even a close fourth to those plays, but it does offer a fine, multi-layered role for an older actress. At CDT, Midge Verhein plays the cantankerous Josephine with sparks of humor and heaps of dignity. If at first her Josephine seems like the mean gran who points out weight gains and new gray hairs at family reunions, by the end she's so bruised and vulnerable, she summons up memories of everyone's favorite "Gammy" or "Meemaw." For those now having to make hard, heartbreaking decisions about older relatives, this one will get you right where you live.
Buzz (a tightly wound James Gilbert) is the brainier sibling, but that's not saying much. Freddie (James West) is Lennie to Buzz's George, a hulking half-wit first seen cleaning his hunting rifle and playing soldier on the floor. The boys previously watched their mother die slowly of cancer. Now dad Carl (Dick Malnory in a terrific performance) is well into the ravages of Alzheimer's. Buzz suggests a quick way to put the old man out of his misery. Out in the woods, Freddie will "accidentally" put a bullet in him. Carry out the scheme, Buzz tells Freddie, and he'll make him "delivery supervisor" at his liquor store. Freddie's not so sure, despite such an enticement. "Shooting Dad was not really my plan when I got up this morning," he says.