Backstage West - January 15, 2004

Grace and Glorie

There is a finite number of stories to be passed down, we've been told, and variations on these have generated the lexicon of the theatre since the earliest ancient dramas. Tom Ziegler's play offers one such, dealing as it does with the ultimate bonding of two utterly dissimilar characters. The playwright and the players here, however, manage to avoid the ultimate cliche by filling out what might have been stereotypes with psychological precision.

Grace Stiles (Nan Tepper) is a feisty backwoods redneck, as she describes herself, who has managed to endure for 90 years with faith, a blind eye to progress, and a deaf ear to distant rumors of female empowerment. She's been nowhere and seen almost everything, including the death of her husband and five children, pain, sickness, and now the demolition of her beloved orchard on land she's sold to the developers of a mountain resort, probably at a loss. What she hasn't seen, despite her devotion to the good life, is the glory she was promised as the crown of her endeavors. When Gloria Whitmore (D.J. Harner) arrives on the doorstep of Grace's shack in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, despite the unmanageable distance between their cultures and the reason for Gloria's presence, Grace insists on calling her Glorie. Gloria--with a Harvard MBA, a wealthy lawyer husband, and all the perquisites of an upscale overachiever from New York City--has become a Hospice volunteer despite herself. "To help me die?" asks Grace in disbelief.  "And you can't even say the word death." Naturally, there's more to both women than meets the eye, and Harner and Tepper make it all happen, with a good deal of grace and glorious humor. Some of Ziegler's lines are quirkily insightful and quite revealing of the human estate, and though we can foresee what is to come, we nevertheless end up caring for both these characters. Both suffer a renaissance of sorts, and a clearer concept of who they really are.

Small quibbles: Harner overplays her exasperation somewhat, and Tepper hums too long on a cantankerous note, both of which tend to elongate the conflict into the shape of a knitted sweater with arms that are too long. The play is overwritten by about 10 minutes, and the playwright misses some cues by revisiting the same place too many times, especially when we already know the resolution. Despite these flaws, director Judy Welden has fashioned a warm and funny production of this 1990 play, with some expert assistance from set designer Jeff G. Rack, who nicely authenticates the up-country ambience, with Katrina Kalatzis' lighting design and Tony Karraa's excellent sound. ---  Madeleine Shaner