Part of the Artful Aging Special Report
If you want to know what people are worried about, look no further than what’s playing on and off Broadway. These days, that means plays about autism (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time) and coming out as transgender (Would You Still Love Me If…). And in this age of the aging boomer, plays about growing older are growing in popularity — while resonating with critics and audiences alike.
The Gin Game examines what happens to people forced to submit to the daily indignities of living in an old age home after being abandoned by their families. In it, James Earl Jones, 84, plays against 90-year-old Cicely Tyson in a vicious card game. In Ripcord, Holland Taylor, 72, duels with Marylouise Burke, 74, who plays her meddlesome Garbo-like roommate in an assisted living facility. In the recently closed Love & Money, Maureen Anderman, 69, almost has you believe she’s lost her marbles and is about to give away her fortune to a scam artist. And those are just the plays I’ve seen lately.
On another stage, a 77-year-old Marlo Thomas stars as a mother trying to keep her son’s marriage together in Clever Little Lies. And Kathleen Turner, 61, is appearing as the mom of a longtime lesbian who reveals she’s actually transgender. It’s refreshing to see so many older actors in meaty roles. It’s also fascinating to see much younger actors tackle the issue of aging, which is the conceit of Before Your Very Eyes. Here are four shows about aging that are worth seeing and even if you can’t catch them in New York, they may be staged near you soon. (Spoiler alert: plots will be revealed below.)
The Gin Game
In The Gin Game (which closes Jan. 19, 2016), Weller (played by the powerful James Earl Jones) sits amid cast-off chairs and walkers on the ramshackle back porch of the home for the aged. Thinking she’s alone, Fonsia (the remarkable Cicely Tyson) wanders in weeping. The two fall into conversation, then Weller invites Fonsia to play cards with him. It may be just a game, but as the hands are dealt, they slowly unearth the deepest sorrows and fears of these two, and eventually crush their fragile connection as heartlessly as a steamroller.
While rusty at gin, Fonsia quickly and consistently trounces Weller, and with each fresh hand, she poses a fresh question. Instead of answering, Weller loudly counts cards as he deals them. Weller doesn’t exactly talk: He bellows his words, the force of his voice seeming strong enough to blow the petite woman away.
Still, the feisty Fonsia persists, and as the game continues, secrets are revealed and a tenuous friendship forms between the pair. They discuss their various divorces, ailments (she has diabetes; he has a bad knee), life in the home, the other residents (“Why do they have dance lessons in a place where half the people can’t get out of their chair?” Weller asks) and the food.
The Voice starts asking really pointed questions: 'You’ve lived half your life now. Did things not turn out how you expected?'
Fonsia allows as how she doesn’t know anyone who likes stewed tomatoes. “Dietitians are not noted for their imagination,” Weller retorts.
They also commiserate about how they are treated by the staff. “I never take my medicine; I always take our medicine,” Fonsia declares.
As Fonsia wins hand after hand, Weller — who had presented himself as a master card shark — becomes increasingly annoyed. “Can’t you lose just once?” he complains.
Fonsia continues to win, but as Weller’s irritation grows to full-blown agitation, she doesn’t want to play anymore. When she tries to leave, he commands her to sit and play with him. She complies, but things don’t improve with her attempts to placate him. Eventually, he sweeps the cards off the table and upends it, thoroughly frightening his card mate.
The second act finds them back on the porch. Weller has concocted a plan to smoke Fonsia out of her room, telling another resident that her sister was visiting. Neither of them has ever had a visitor at the home.
Inside, the other residents are dancing, and it’s obvious that Fonsia wants to, too. Eventually, Weller stands up and takes the tiny woman in his arms and they share a moment of much-needed human contact. We wish these two could find some consolation with each other, but the characters stay true to their natures. No one wins this game.
Even before the action begins, we get a clear sense of what’s to come in Ripcord (closing Dec. 6, 2015) from the two beds that occupy the stage. The one by the window is crisply made; the one by the door, carelessly.
Abby, well-coiffed and elegant in tailored clothes, sleeps in the well-made bed. A widow who lives in the Bristol Place Assisted Living Facility, Abby wants to be alone. She has ensured this state of affairs in the double room by scaring off every roommate who dared trespass on her territory by her hostile behavior.
Enter Marilyn — herself something of a rumpled bed, frowsy, talkative and endlessly curious. She follows Abby around like an over-friendly lapdog, attempting to engage the decidedly standoffish grouch with friendly banter. Undaunted by Abby’s unmitigated frost, Marilyn settles in, decorating her new home with a painting by her grandson, which she proudly shows Abby.
“It looks like a Pap smear,” snipes Abby. “It’s a fire truck,” Marilyn corrects.
Marilyn may seem sweet and naive, but she craftily corners Abby into a bet: the winner gets the bed by the window with the view of the park, currently occupied by Abby. To win, Marilyn has to scare Abby; Abby has to make Marilyn angry.
Thus starts a war between the aging ladies (played by Holland Taylor and Marylouise Burke) that soon has staff and various family members concerned. It seems nothing is off-limits to these two, which begins with Abby filling in Marilyn’s beloved Sudoku books to Marilyn inveigling her son-in-law to attempt to mug Abby as she sits on her favorite park bench.
The dirty tricks get more and more outrageous, with hilarious — and sometimes heartbreaking — results.
Love & Money
In A.R. Gurney’s Love & Money (which recently closed), Cornelia Cunningham (Maureen Anderman) is at her desk in her well-appointed library feverishly writing checks to charities — she favors anything to do with children and Native Americans — to divest herself of the wealth that she finds so onerous.
Enter her lawyer (Joe Paulik), who urges her to be conservative with her giving. Then a twist: someone claiming to be her grandson (Gabriel Brown) is at the door. While both her lawyer and her housekeeper can barely contain their skepticism that the stranger is actually related to Cornelia, the tall, smooth African-American soon sweeps Cornelia into his arms, dancing to Cole Porter and has her apparently eating out of his hand. His story of the true love between his father and her daughter, while plausible in certain respects, sets off alarms at the law firm.
While her lawyer investigates her would-be grandson’s claims, Scott slowly extracts the painful life stories of her children, both of whom suffered tragic results from having too much money. In the end, Cornelia proves herself to be fully intact mentally — and she has a surprise for Scott of her own.
Before Your Very Eyes
Perhaps the most powerful show on aging now playing in New York features actors between the ages of nine and 14. Before Your Very Eyes (an American premiere, closing Nov. 29, 2015) shows life from the perspective of children who age decades ahead, freezing at various points along the way (the teenage years… then turning 40 and finally, nearing death).
The action seems fairly banal at first — a group of hyperactive, carefree kids playing on a bright orange carpet — until one of them declares, “We’ve been thinking a lot about death lately.”
The Voice (an unseen character who prods the action on through a microphone) gets the ball rolling by announcing: “You’re here to live — and then die,” she says. She commands them to grow. Eventually, she will force them to take an unflinching look at how they’ve lived their lives. And by association, the audience must, too.
We see the children’s younger selves on a television screen talking about what they can do now and their aspirations for the future. Their older selves, just by a couple of years, observe. Then the kids turn into surly teens, and the younger selves start questioning their choices. “You’re smoking?”
Fast-forward to Simone’s 40th birthday party. People now talk about wine, gentrification, their children — and lie about liking Simone’s new hairdo. Neither Simone nor anyone else is having a very good time.
Now the Voice starts asking really pointed questions: “You’ve lived half your life now. Did things not turn out how you expected?”
The younger selves confront their middle-aged personas: “Did you follow any of your dreams? Did you write that book? Who’d you marry?” The older selves, whose poignant facial expression are juxtaposed with their younger ones on two large screens, see the accusing looks on their questioners’ faces and gaze back with naked dismay. No parent could ever be as intimidating.
Simone’s younger self flinches when she sees her older self. “Is that you? What happened to you? You’ve really let yourself go. You’ve disappointed me.”
Keanu is so pained by listening to his younger self go on and on about his fabulous movie career that he walks away.
In the final scene, the children are now exhausted, jogging in place until one by one they die of a stroke, heart attack, choking. Last standing is Meghan. She misses her friends. The Voice asks, “How would you like to die?”
“Quietly in my sleep,” she replies. “I don’t want to be a burden.”
“What happens after you die?” The relentless Voice persists.
“They put you in a box and they carry you away.”