Grace and Glorie
Review by Sean McQuaid
Your past-his-best-before-date playgoer has always had a soft spot for older folks, even as a youngster. Living more or less next door to my wonderful maternal grandparents might have had something to do with it, but it’s also been a long-recurring element in my favourite entertainment.
As a kid, for instance, I always liked the greying Justice Society of America (JSA) formed in the 1940s better than their younger Justice League of America (JLA) counterparts, and the annual JLA-JSA team-ups were my favourite JLA comic book stories.
As I got older, some of my favourite TV shows similarly bridged the old/young divide, like the colourful intergenerational cast of WKRP in Cincinnati, where sleazy salesman Herb Tarlek’s elderly father once opined that the only difference between being young and being old was that it takes courage to be old.
That sentiment came back to me repeatedly while watching playwright Tom Ziegler’s 1991 melodramedy Grace and Glorie, the full length play component of this year’s excellent Pay-What-You-Can Theatre Festival at the Guild. Directed by Adam Brazier and assistant director Graham Putnam, it’s set in a remote Blue Ridge Mountains shack where 90-year-old cancer patient Grace (Marlane O’Brien) has retreated to face her imminent death.
Grace gets unsolicited assistance aplenty from hospice volunteer Glorie (Catherine O’Brien), an accomplished New York lawyer who has left her lucrative practice and moved to rural Kentucky after a family tragedy. Friction and miscommunication ensue as the spiritual, simple, country-bred farm widow and the cynical, sophisticated, city-bred attorney get to know each other.
Cue The Odd Couple theme music, one might say, and Ziegler’s script does opt for broad, easy laughs in spots, especially at the expense of Glorie’s sometimes cartoonishly severe inability to cope with country life, whether she’s cowering in terror of mice, burning herself on the woodstove or letting chickens push her around.
But if Ziegler’s characters are a bit broadly drawn by times, and the rough outlines of their emerging friendship fairly predictable, the play makes up for it with the compelling background details it builds up around its setting and its characters, as well as the bigger philosophical issues it explores with humour and heart regarding how one lives and how one dies.
The play’s thoughtful ruminations on age and mortality remind me of another old TV favourite, the superb Twilight Zone anthology series (1959-1964). Series creator Rod Serling was half-fascinated, half-haunted by aging, a topic featured in about 20 of the show’s episodes, including series highlights such as "Walking Distance", "The Trouble with Templeton" and "Nothing in the Dark". The latter George Clayton Johnson script, with its elderly recluse Wanda awaiting the grim reaper, is pleasantly echoed by Gracie’s own half-religious, half-superstitious anticipation of personified Death coming for her.
Quiet, understated sequences like Gracie’s talk of awaiting the reaper are among the strongest moments of this production; and while the broad comedy elements fit both O’Briens like a glove (despite a few overly shouty exchanges), Marlane O’Brien in particular does some of her best work here in the quieter bits with some genuinely moving line readings.
Beyond the cast, the overall craft and production values are strong despite the perhaps-limited budget that comes with a Pay-What-You-Can production. Suitably old-timey furnishings and props convincingly embody Gracie’s shack, and extensive sound effects add a lot in terms of mood and colour, as well as facilitating certain plot points. It’s a very solid production, and commendably affordable for all audiences.