Gray matters

Nov 17, 2004 at 12:00 am

Growing old can be a nasty business. There’s the physical deterioration and the ever-growing dependency on others. There’s the society that rarely recognizes the accumulated experience and wisdom of those afflicted by nothing more than longevity. And though these mires would seem to be debilitating in their own right, there is one condition that often befalls those in their twilight years that is the cruelest, and perhaps the most crippling of all: loneliness.

The connections made during a lifetime fray and wither. The comforting pool of acquaintances dries up as close friends either die or are placed in vast warehouses erected to keep them fed, medicated and out of the way. It’s loneliness — as caustic and disfiguring as any acid, eating away the last remnants of vitality, worth and courage — that’s at the heart of playwright June August’s Coming To Life.

The play’s setting, a community room at the Harvest Moon Retirement House, will be uncomfortably familiar to anyone who has visited one of these places. The television is always on. The piano never gets played. By all appearances, it’s a place that could easily distract from the creaking bones and bad digestion of its residents. But these things are props, mere allusions to the comforts of a real home. There isn’t much of a community in Harvest Moon’s well-tended, but ultimately cold, environs. But that’s all about to change.

Linda (Natalie Chilis), a young psychologist, has invaded Harvest Moon to pull a little research from five residents who answered her letter seeking subjects to interview. These five volunteers, all women, see the study as an opportunity to blab and kvetch and basically bust up the regimen that has pummeled them all into either nit-picking bothers, or worse, silent observers.

Louise (Mary Bremer, a dead ringer for Vivian Vance) begins the play as an insufferable whiner, incessantly preoccupied with her inconsiderate daughter. Then there’s Helen (Sandra Love Aldridge), a retired nurse who has abandoned her bedside manner for a vicious tongue and an insatiable appetite for junk food. There’s also Clara (Jennifer Jones), a former college professor whose annoying rigidity is matched only by her pedantic recitations of literary quotes. Joining the fray is Vera (Charlotte Leisinger), an old hippie type who revels in her past sexual exploits and political activism and enjoys pricking the ears of the more naïve and sheltered women in the group. Rounding out the cast is Janette (Henrietta Hermelin), blinded at a young age by diabetes and hanging on to her dead twin sister’s memory as tightly as the knitting needles in her bony hands.

The “sessions” these women have signed up for begin with the type of questions that psychologists love to ask: “Finish this sentence. When I’m alone …” and “when I think of my childhood. …” The seemingly innocuous forays into the ladies’ psyches provide the grist and the inevitable clashes between the participants; dreams are exposed and secrets come to the surface through the incessant needling and expository monologue that is the backbone of the play.

Louise, vain and selfish, exposes what fuels her hypochondria and her aggressive stance toward everyone. Helen eventually reveals the underlying reasons for her enormous appetite for cookies and put-downs. Janette, blind and hopelessly dependent on a sister who can no longer provide her comfort, explains why her last days are filled with weakness and paranoia. Clara, the uptight professor, has her own soap opera that eventually gets played out and provides the most dramatic twist of the production. And Vera, once a songwriter, is silenced by doubts and a sinister abuse that still haunts her.

Coming to Life does not dispense its truths in a manner that could be described as subtle. After each personality “quirk” is revealed and bounced off the others, the character prefaces her story in an overly organized (and, in a few instances, overly long) manner that puts an undue strain on credulity. Although acted with genuine enthusiasm and energy by the company, the playwright at times turns these confessionals into too-perfect self-actualizations. That being said, the humanity captured in the play is real, and the pain endured and the hope that is rekindled through the communion of these “sessions” could only be described as schmaltzy by the most cynical theatergoer.


At the Detroit Repertory Theatre, 13103 Woodrow Wilson St., Detroit; 313-868-1347. Thursdays through Sundays until Dec. 26, plus a special New Year’s Eve performance.

Dan DeMaggio is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]