THE WAVERLY GALLERY rings truer than any play I’ve seen in memory because it reminds me of my mother, Annette, who died just a year ago at the age of 93 (well, actually one month short, but I give her 93). Her last years were similar to those of THE WAVERLY GALLERY’s central character Gladys Green, the octogenarian whose decline into senility is compassionately and beautifully told by playwright, film director and screenwriter Kenneth Lonergan. And in a flawless performance, the legendary Elaine May (way back when the comic partner of the legendary Mike Nichols) makes Gladys entirely believable.
Gladys, an agnostic Jewish New Yorker whose parents fled Europe, retired lawyer and long-time widow, owns an inert West Village art gallery where selling art happens even less frequently than the visits from non-existent art patrons. She spends her time reminiscing about her career, her long-gone relatives, and her former, active social life. Her grandson Daniel, who lives in an abutting apartment in a building next to the gallery, visits her regularly. On Wednesday nights every week she goes to her daughter and her husband’s (Daniel’s stepfather) Upper West Side apartment for dinner. Gladys is a kind, loving person.
My mother and Gladys’ had vastly different backgrounds. My mother was Catholic and a New Englander. Widowed for three decades, she was close to her two granddaughters and remained civically active. Annette was a kind, loving person.
In my mother’s last years, she talked a lot about her own childhood, cousins long gone and falling in love with my father. My mother’s slips in senility, before her body ceased thriving, wasn’t terminal as it is THE WAVERLY GALLERY. But in Elaine May’s Gladys, I again was witnessing those silent spaces mid-sentence, the elliptical storytelling with an endless middle but neither beginning nor end, the same question asked over and over again. Gladys’ grandson (a perfectly low-keyed Lucas Hedges), who tells Gladys’ tale as a memory play, observes how Gladys’ memory is all in pieces but all the pieces are still hers. About six months before Annette died, she said to me “Danny, I know I have all these beautiful memories but I can’t remember them.”
Playwright Lonergan‘s trueness applies to Gladys’ family experiences. Daughter Ellen (the wonderful Joan Allen) struggles to put aside submersed mother-daughter strife and find patience. Son-in-law Howard (a stolid David Cromer) tries to keep peace. The appearance of Don (a fine Michael Cera), an outsider, a struggling artist from Boston whom Gladys takes in at her gallery, seemed puzzling at first. He’s a loner, a drifter, sort of a lost soul. He’s neither here nor there. Gladys shelters him because she’s neither here nor there, too. Her transit isn’t complete.
Lila Neugebauer‘s direction is as sensitive as Lonergan's writing: Her pacing suggests both the passage of time past, and lapses in the present. The God-gifted, impeccable comic timing of Elaine May, illuminates many funny, sometimes absurd, moments in THE WAVERLY GALLERY. Still, it’s a sad play, but NOT a depressing one. Gladys’ grandson Daniel wonders why Gladys kept going on so long and concludes “it makes you think it must be worth a lot to be alive.” This wonderful play simply but profoundly reminds us of how much the living memory means.
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