Death Lite: Two Shows at the Bath House Dare to Laugh in the Face of the Grim Reaper

A slab of Velveeta with Miracle Whip on a slice of white bread. For 90-year-old Grace, that's a happy meal. That's also a pretty accurate description of Tom Ziegler's two-hander play Grace and Glorie, a soft, bland sandwich of comedy and pathos, and the latest effort by One Thirty Productions at the Bath House Cultural Center. If it weren't for some gourmet acting by Gene Raye Price (as the old lady) and Emily Scott Banks (as Gloria, the young, Harvard-educated hospice worker), Grace and Glorie might be harder to choke down.

Like most of One Thirty's shows—they perform only at 1:30 p.m. matinees, Wednesday through Saturday—Grace and Glorie is heavy on the cheese and light on the message. This theater company knows, loves and caters to its target audience of retirees, many of whom arrive at the shows on buses from senior-living communities. They are an attentive, receptive, loyal crowd. One Thirty Productions is the only troupe currently using the Bath House stage that can count on performing to consistently sold-out houses.

A play about death probably wasn't what they signed up for with this one, however. So it's a good thing Grace and Glorie keeps the grim reaper out on the porch and out of the parlor. This is a story about preparing for the end of life, recovering from the loss of loved ones and about the healing, life-affirming power of something as simple as sharing a meal with a friend.

Grace has been sent home from the hospital to die. She has inoperable cancer and, having outlived her husband and five sons, sees little reason to fight off the inevitable. The doctors have given her just a few weeks. The time-share developer to whom she's sold what's left of the family farm has jumped the gun, though. His crews are already felling Grace's beloved apple orchards.

Gloria, in her 30s, is a volunteer who's helped two other terminal patients through the final stages. A recent transplant from Manhattan to rural Virginia, she's walked away from a high-powered business career and followed her lawyer-husband to his new job.

The circumstances in which Gloria finds Grace are pretty grim. The little cabin in the Blue Ridge mountains has only a wood stove for heating and cooking; water has to be pumped into the tiny sink and the toilet facilities are less than deluxe (the set design by Larry Randolph suggests all these details nicely). Grace is all alone, barely eating, unable to get out of bed until Gloria (whom Grace insists on calling "Glorie" after a favorite church hymn) arrives and takes charge.

Most of what happens after the first few scenes is strictly from the Hallmark Hall of Fame style of dramedy (and this 1996 script became just such a cable TV vehicle for actors Gena Rowlands and Diane Lane). It's best just to sit back and let this play wrap around you like one of those hand-pieced quilts draped over the foot of Grace's bed. The dialogue sometimes sounds like it's lifted from the folksy sayings on cross-stitched samplers. Funny how Grace's old-timey nuggets of wisdom seem new to Gloria, though it is a mite fur-fetched to believe that a woman with a Harvard MBA has never heard that a watched pot never boils.

The play does a gentle switchback midway through. Grace doesn't need help facing death at all, as it turns out. It's Gloria, who has been planning to take her own life under the weight of guilt over an accident that killed her 12-year-old son. (That's not giving anything away. If you're even half awake at Grace and Glorie, you'll still be half a mile ahead of the plot at every turn.) Both women find new reasons to live, even if, in Grace's case, it's for just another day.

Directed by One Thirty founder Marty van Kleeck, the two actresses, Gene Raye Price and Emily Scott Banks, work their characters' contrasting rhythms beautifully. They find real nuance in the sentimental sections and, boy, do they know how to soft-sell the comedy bits, like Gloria's shrieky reactions to the cabin's mice and Grace's puckery taste-tests of exotic "Yankee food" Gloria brings in from the deli.

One Thirty Productions' shows are always a little like one of your grandmother's homemade apple pies—maybe not the most sophisticated fare but satisfying and sweet. A little gooey cheese on top doesn't hurt one bit.

Audacity Theatre Lab, now in the nighttime slot for a few weeks at the Bath House Cultural Center, introduces a new young playwright, Clay McLeod Chapman, with the area premiere of his 2005 play Volume of Smoke. Chapman, a New York-based writer, has made a compelling one-act from his research into a real-life event, an 1811 theater fire in Richmond, Virginia, that took 70 lives and injured hundreds.

Six actors play dozens of roles as they speak directly to the audience in an hour of vignettes, some surprisingly funny, many more poignant, told from different points of view of those trapped in the fire and those who escaped it. We hear from the stagehand (played by Chris Piper) who accidentally raised the candle-lit chandelier into the flammable rafters too quickly. The hand had a sailing background so he compares the tapestries hanging from the fly rails to billowing sails and as he looks out into the panicked audience, all he sees are rolling waves of humanity.

The hammy actor (Tyson Rinehart) who yells "The stage is on fire!" steps forward to share a few lines from his other, longer performances, including Hamlet. A cranky patron (Rhianna Mack) in a squeaky seat describes the horror from the stalls. A mother (Angela Parsons) recalls being separated from her children in the melee. A fire-and-brimstone minister (Oscar Contreras) preaches that the fire was God's punishment for sinful entertainment. (A church was later built on the ruins of the playhouse.)

Chapman paints poetic word pictures. A pit musician (Mack again) describes watching the fire "play the notes" as it crackled through the pages of music. Then "the flames snaked inside each woodwind, tunneling through the flues...the horns heated like frying pans on a stove."

Children (Elizabeth Evans, Chris Piper) playing in the lobby speak of their terror as they were trampled to death. A man (Rinehart) who has treated his wife (Parsons) to an evening out for their anniversary keeps repeating the words, "They were the best seats in the house."

In giving voices to ghosts of an event nearly 200 years past, Chapman has created a fascinating little docudrama, and one that's surprisingly lighthearted and un-melodramatic. Audacity's production, directed by Ruth Engel, puts even more emphasis on the words by keeping the tech details simple. The scenery is just a few wooden chairs, a ladder and an old trunk, from which actors pull costume pieces as they change parts.

At the end of Volume of Smoke, the ensemble recites a list of famous theater fires, going back a thousand years. Until the advent of electricity, and the use of "fire curtains" on big stages, theaters were lit with candles, torches and gaslights, so the risk of incineration was high. There's little chance of anyone having to shout "Fire!" in a crowded theater now. But after seeing this play, we'll be sure to look for the exit signs before the lights go down.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner