Playing on the past

When Kim Carney's mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease and needed to go into care, the Michigan playwright took that experience and carved out a plot. Moonglow is her sad, poignant and mercilessly funny play about growing old and losing your mind.

Maxine is a sick and elderly woman who veers from stubborn to aggressive, and in the middle of a sentence forgets her daughter Diane's name: "You don't call me Momma and I won't call you ... whatever your name is." Maxine is much happier recalling her younger years in Detroit, which she spent at the Graystone Ballroom, drinking Vernor's and dancing the jitterbug with a young sailor who was to become her husband.

At the foster home, Maxine meets Joe, who shares his memories from long ago. They become a couple, much to the consternation of Joe's son, Greg, who is angry that his father would "cheat" on his dead mother. An anonymous couple — a sailor in '40s garb and a young girl in a period dress — re-enact scenes from the past, taking Joe and Maxine's place by dancing or flirting.

Maxine is the heart of the play. Performed by Carmen Decker, she is a demon who lives up to her son-in-law's description of "an angry bitch." But she is also bitterly funny, often because she pokes fun at others in a rich mezzo voice that can sound like a plunging elevator that stops before it hits bottom. Maxine can be unpleasant, but she is entrancing in her contrariness, as long as we don't have to live with her. Actress Decker is brilliant in capturing her highs, lows and everything in between.

The play takes us on an 11-month downward slope to the end of Maxine's life. It's sad, but Maxine leaves with the comfort of a romantic, sexual affair, wrapped in beloved memories from better years. What Carney does, though, that's even more saddening, is get us close enough to each of Maxine's and Joe's children, who are struggling to come to terms with their own pasts, and are looking for love in all the wrong places.

The ensemble cast performs as if it had been working together for years. Will Young is a spry and gruff Joe, and his son is played well by Loren Bass. Kelly Pino is damn fine as the frustrated daughter Diane (if only she would stop slapping her thighs regularly — it's an annoying mannerism). As the young Joe and Maxine, Steven O'Brien and Nora Bonner are sweet and nimble. And Casaundra Freeman makes the best of an underwritten part as Benita, the put-upon yet patient house manager.

Carney has written a pithy play about aging that does not preach nor make judgment about the final phase of life, but instead lays it out for the audience to observe with wit and — unless you are stone-deaf or asleep — a tear or two.

Great credit goes to director Joe Posante for creating a seamless flow of action in and out of the past and between the two minimal settings of Maxine's bedroom and the television room. But the physical production is less superior: The background is two large circular swirls of color on a scrim, behind which the young sailor and his girl dance or mime events; it is effective in transporting the audience, but it's also distracting. The costuming is clumsy, especially for the young people whose clothes are ill-fitting or mismatched. And why is the couch ragged and spilling stuffing? If this were reality, the home would lose its license quicker than you can say social worker.

There are other, minor issues about the production, but what's important to consider is the play's greater arc of truth — real people are caught in the web and we are given the rare opportunity to unravel it.


8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays until March 5 at the Performance Network, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor; 734-663-0681.

Michael H. Margolin writes about theater and the performing arts for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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