Delusions of Grandma

Contemporary Theatre finds warmth in Close Ties; a tight FIT of plays at the Bath House

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.

Everybody, but everybody, cries in Close Ties.
George Wada
Everybody, but everybody, cries in Close Ties.

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.


How strange to drop in at the Festival of Independent Theatres now playing at the Bath Houseand find another play dealing with exactly the same problems as Close Ties, but offering a somewhat more dire solution. In Bill Bozzone's funny, macabre, thoroughly enjoyable one-act The Widow Maker, produced for the festival by Beardsley Living Theatre, two brothers meet in a remote mountain cabin to decide what to do about Dad.

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.

Bozzone doesn't let this simple plan go smoothly, of course. When Dad arrives, he has company, a new girlfriend named Margaret. She's in a wheelchair and, without giving away the joke, let's just say she's lifelike but a little less than human.

No doubt, Dad, Alz-hammered or not, is a handful. He berates his boys, telling them he'd have been better off "raising chinchillas." He refuses to hug them for fear of getting human scent on his hunting gear, but then he gets frisky with Margaret in front of them. The three men head out into the dawn with their loaded guns for what will be a twisted game of shoot-don't-shoot. Who will make it back alive? Shoot, I'm not tellin'.

Acted with grit and great timing by the trio of Gilbert, West and Malnory, and directed with a light touch by Brenda and Michael Galgan, The Widow Maker makes for an hour of laughs that ends with a cringe. Good work by Margaret, too.

Only one of the other half-dozen one-acts reviewed during FIT's opening weekend is worth recommending. That is Crave, a fugue for four actors by British playwright Sarah Kane, who killed herself in 1999, the year after the play's well-reviewed premiere in London. Produced for FIT by Wingspan Theatre and directed by Rene Moreno, Crave presents four black-clad characters called simply A, B, C and M, sitting in simple chairs side by side onstage. They never rise from the chairs and never touch one another. It's the language that does all the work, going from random--"I'm lost...in this mess of a woman"--to painfully specific--"I hate the smell of my own family."

As lines intersect, overlap and bounce from actor to actor, stories begins to emerge, much like the intertwined plots of the Paul Thomas Anderson film Magnolia. Mr. A (Mark Oristano) is a confessed pedophile and stalker of young girls. Miss C (the luminous Lydia Mackay) is one of his victims. Mr. B (Regan Adair, superb as always) is lured into an affair with an older woman, Ms. M. (Kristina Baker), who wants a child at any cost.

The quartet cries, screams, babbles and whispers. At one point Adair's Mr. B screams the word "no" 17 times. Crave vibrates with the poetry of want, the dissonant chords of desperation. And it's brilliant--writing, acting, staging, lighting (by Mandy Embry), all of it.

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