Nobody gets their fingernails done in Manicures & Monuments, a 30-year-old play by Dallas playwright Vicki Caroline Cheatwood that’s on in a respectably acted but outsized revival at Addison’s WaterTower Theatre. Think of it as Golden Girls meeting Steel Magnolias in a run-down nursing home in rural Oklahoma. Instead of going to the beauty parlor, this play’s pair of old ladies have a visiting manicurist, Jananne (Mikaela Krantz), who chatters like a magpie but never really gets down to the clipping and painting of anyone’s claws.
This is one of those gentle, wistful comedies about the rude infirmities of age and how much wisdom old people have in contrast to the rash decisions of the dumb and young. Nothing much happens over two hours. The characters impart cutesy Southern-twanged idioms like “I’ll swan” and “upchucked.” It’s achingly quaint and faintly patronizing to its two main old-aged characters, who are depicted in broad stereotypes. One’s bitter as gall; the other is so mentally out of it, she repeats herself like Rain Man. (There’s also a male Rain Man character.)
In a season when Dallas stages have fired up fresh, exciting, challenging contemporary pieces of theater such as Annie Baker’s Pulitzer-winner The Flick (at Undermain with Krantz in the cast) and the current staging of Madeleine George’s Precious Little (Echo Theatre at the Bath House through June 20), Manicures & Monuments arrives with more than a slight whiff of mothballs about it. It’s funny in spits and spurts, if you can muster a chuckle at jokes about a dementia patient soiling herself. It just feels stale.
One big prob with the WaterTower production is that the mise en scène for Manicures & Monuments is small — the sparsely furnished day room of the little nursing home, with exits indicating unseen offices and hallways. Only eight characters appear, half of whom do most of the talking. This presents a dilemma for director Susan Sargeant and set designer Clare Floyd DeVries. They’ve had to spread a few bodies over a vast expanse of stage, turning an intimate setting into one the size of a basketball court. With so much real estate to navigate, it takes a while for characters using wheelchairs and walkers to make the journey from stage right to left. The un-miked actors have to shout dialogue at each other across the great divide.
The physical size of this production might also explain the lack of actual manicuring. Doing nails is a series of small actions — too small to be read by the back rows at WaterTower. Instead, Sargeant has Krantz fiddling around with one lady’s feet, but not believably and not even with the right equipment for a passable pedicure.
Props and scenery aside, Sargeant did put a boffo cast of experienced actors together. Pam Dougherty, cast yet again as a cranky old sourpuss (hey, she’s brilliant as the type), brings heart and snap to the main role of Bailey, a retired Army nurse with no patience for stupidity. Her closest pal is flighty Camille (Elly Lindsay), who’s rapidly losing touch with reality. Glued to the TV are Sammy (David Price), a mentally disabled man adopted by the nursing home founders, says Bailey, as “an orphan baby from the state loony farm,” and the nearly silent Luther (Edward Beal), who occasionally unzips and airs out his “thing.”
Mr. Swanson (Chris Messersmith) takes laps around the room on his walker. Sara the Terror (Charlotte White) escapes the confines of her bed now and then to cause a little havoc. Administrator Smitty (Aigner Edgerson) stays perpetually annoyed at the demands of her senior charges and her lack of capable staff to deal with them.
For no logical reason, Jananne hangs out at the nursing home, rarely bothering to take out an emery board, much less a bottle of polish. She gabbles on and on about her life’s dream of seeing national monuments up close. “Before I die, I’m going to Mount Rushmore,” she tells Bailey, who urges the girl to get more schooling beyond how to snip a cuticle. Before long, however, Jananne’s been knocked up three times in three years by her husband, Boy (never seen). Those damn toddlers hamper Jananne’s goal of visiting the Lincoln Memorial but they don’t stop her from popping into the Shady Rest (or whatever it’s called) to commune with the living statuary.
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This is how it goes. It’s never explained why Jananne and Bailey become bosom buds. Emotional outbursts happen out of nowhere. A moment of violence occurs. Somebody dies. The many nonlinear conversations between Bailey and the ever-forgetful Camille (she thinks she once saw the real “Mona Lisa” in Bartlesville, Oklahoma) are mildly amusing, in the way such chats are between dotty ladies at a post-funeral covered dish. “No woman over 30 years of age should sit on a stool,” declares Bailey. She compliments Jananne by telling her, “You have a gift for tellin’ sad stories and makin’ ’em funny.”
Playwright Cheatwood has that gift, too. Manicures & Monuments drips with warm, Mayberry-style humor but it’s also tinged with sadness. The old ladies are lonely and in physical pain. Caretaker Smitty is exhausted to the point of becoming Nurse Ratched.
Cheatwood has written better plays since this. Her drama Ruth, staged at Kitchen Dog a few years ago, was a profoundly moving modern retelling of the Bible story of Ruth and Naomi. Manicures & Monuments, much like D.L. Coburn’s The Gin Game, written when Coburn was in his 30s, looks at old folks from the perspective of a young playwright. Good playwrights can improve with time. It’s their early plays that don’t always age so well.
Manicures & Monuments
continues through June 28 at WaterTower Theatre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison. Tickets $22-$40 at www.watertowertheatre.org or 972-450-6232.