Arts & Culture

‘Gracefully Ending’ sensitively explores issues of aging

Mom is getting up in years and dementia is beginning to take hold. But she adamantly refuses to leave her home to move into an assisted-living facility.

That sad scenario — the engine driving the play Gracefully Ending, which had its world premiere at Theatre Arlington last Friday — is all too familiar these days to a growing number of baby boomers with aging parents. So it is not surprising that the subject is becoming a common topic for stage and screen examination.

This drama by A.J. DeLauder was one of only seven selected from more than 270 scripts submitted for consideration by the NewPlayFest of the American Association of Community Theatre, a national organization headquartered here. Once the plays to be produced were chosen, there was a competitive process to select the theaters that would produce the winning scripts, and Theatre Arlington made the cut.

This story is set in rural West Virginia in 2009, where an elderly widow, Margaret (Sherri Britton) is clinging to her home despite mental and physical infirmities that make if difficult, if not dangerous, for her to live alone. She has decidedly mixed feelings about the arrival of her daughter, Beth (Lindsay Hayward), who has had her share of troubles in the job market and with romance.

Both women have a love-hate relationship with Beth’s son, Andrew (Parker Fitzgerald), who has shamed the family by messing up to the point of doing time. Margaret’s late husband, Hank (Dave Harper) is not around to help sort out this domestic mess. Or is he? He certainly is real to Margaret, who communicates with him on a regular basis. Finding a solution to this complicated situation is not helped by a gathering blizzard bearing down on the family homestead.

The most outstanding aspect of this production, directed by Jim Johnson, is indisputably the performance by Britton. She is spot on in every aspect of building and presenting her character. There are times when she commands the stage alone, and those moments are electrifying. It is a rich pleasure to watch her work.

Her efforts are well supported by Hayward and Fitzgerald, who also lose themselves in their roles. And Harper, who has less stage time, delivers a nicely understated performance as a visiting ghost.

It is easy to see why AACT deemed this play to be worthy of production. It is one of those rare scripts that probably reads as well as it plays. DeLauder has a particular gift for dialogue, sometimes achieving poetic cadences. While this drama is largely dark and tense, he also knows when and where to plant bits of comic relief.

The presentation of DeLauder’s words is helped enormously by Johnson’s intentionally busy direction. He does an outstanding job of injecting motion into a show that could easily lapse into talky stagnation in lesser hands. It is obvious that he had the backs of his actors in the development of their parts.

Also of note is Anthony Curtis’ time-and-place-setting set. It is guilty of looking a bit too much like other sets we have seen him build in this house. But since it works so well, that is a small matter.

On the whole, this show falls into a half-full-or-half-empty realm. That could be said of most shows, but it may be truer than usual in this case. If you buy into the characters and their problems (and I think most patrons will), you will be moved by Britton’s affecting performance and appreciate the complications the show tries to juggle. But, if you are not able to meet his script halfway, you may be put off by some of the overly familiar (mom and daughter can’t seem to get along; gee, that’s new) and other melodramatic trappings of this work.

That is not because this script is terribly flawed. It is just terribly new. Few plays hit the stage in a finished form. The program for this production notes that this show has not been workshopped or edited before this premiere presentation. And that shows.

Almost every script benefits from the shakedown cruises of its initial performances. That is likely to be the case with this show. It needs some cuts (the first act is too long, for example) and tweaks to reach its full potential.

So there are a number of compelling reasons to check this show out, despite its somewhat downbeat subject matter. In addition to the performances, there is a special excitement about seeing a new work trying to find the legs it needs to stand as tall as it wants to be.

It is exhilarating to see the pride and effort that Theatre Arlington and all hands put forth to make this show work.

Gracefully Ending