Welcome to the second original review to appear on this blog! This time around, I’m looking at the second outing in the premier season of a company that’s new to Austin theater, The Alchemy Theatre Company, and its production of Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery (running through October 5th at the Mastrogeorge Theater).
Though the play itself is twenty years old at this point (it was a finalist for the 2001 Pulitzer Prize), The Waverly Gallery has reentered public consciousness in recent years thanks to a 2018 Broadway revival that featured an all-star cast and garnered a Tony Award for Best Actress for Elaine May. When it comes time for awards season in Austin, the same role may prove bountiful for the beating heart of this production, local treasure Babs George.
The Waverly Gallery is a memory play, focusing on a young man’s reminiscence of his grandmother’s final few years of life as she descends further and further into dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease. Though we see the story through the eyes of the grandson, Daniel (played here with a delightfully dry sense of warmth and growing frustration by Ruben Caballero), it is his grandmother’s story that carries the momentum of the play.
As Gladys Green, Babs George transforms over the course of the play. From the opening scene, when we see a slightly befuddled, but still smart and funny, older woman whose lapses might be due as much to a faulty hearing aid as a faulty memory, through to her final descent into horrified hallucinations and total confusion, George never handles the character than anything less than full love, sympathy, and understanding. She gives us a glimpse into the indomitable lawyer and crusader for progress who Gladys once was, making her current state of decreasing functionality even more deeply tragic.
Lonergan’s text rides the line between a philosophical look at ageing and death, a naturalist presentation of family dynamics, and a deeply felt love letter to those suffering from Alzheimer’s and similar diseases. Ms. George is the most adept performer at carrying the emotional weight of the text, but the rest of the cast are equally at home in recreating the natural nuances of both conversation and heartbreak. Kim Jackson Davis, as Ellen—Gladys’ daughter and Daniel’s mother—is particularly notable for showing how a façade of strength is often a razor-thin mask for explosive turmoil and sadness within.
Director Michael Cooper knows that he’s dealing with heavy material here, and thus never fails to highlight a moment of warmth or humor within the story, while lighting designer Kelsi Bodin creates a brightly lit world that emphasizes the emotional shadows within the characters. The only downside, production-wise, is the frequent and lengthy scene transitions that cut harshly into the narrative momentum, working against the free flow of memories that the text is trying to evoke.
Fortunately, Ms. George’s performance is so bravura that she is able to pull the audience right back into any scene that features her. And therein lies the key to Alchemy Theatre’s production of The Waverly Gallery—an amazing lead performance that is so strong that it more than makes up for any failings.