by Arney Rosenblat
20th Century Blues spotlights four thinking attractive women over
sixty who articulately and touchingly demonstrate that they will not let the
passage of time make them invisible or irrelevant.
The circle of life is the natural order of the universe. However,
it becomes an increasingly less abstract concept with each passing year as
Danny, a now prominent photographer and one of Sue Miller's leading characters
in 20th Century Blues observes, ”I used to think that old people came into
the world that way. There were babies. Children. Adults. And old
people. It didn't sink in for a long time that one person, including me,
would actually change inexorably, from one to the other. That one person
could embody all those opposing forms."
Though 20th Century Blues offers no ground breaking insights or
shattering truths, it does offer an engaging compassionate look at growing old
with dignity, style and grace. The story focuses on four women who
became friends some forty years ago when they met in jail after a protest...
"It was the '70s. You were no one if you didn't spend the night in
jail," says Danny. This is where Danny began an annual ritual at
which she photographed her friends as they moved through their lives having
children, gaining degrees, forging careers. finding and losing love
The women are a diverse group. There is the aforementioned
photographer Danny, portrayed with exuberance by Polly Draper, the glue of the
group, who is divorced, has an adopted son and a 91 year-old mother in early
stages of dementia. There is Gabby, played with amusing warmth by Kathryn
Grody, who is a veterinarian, breast cancer survivor and "widow
in-training" as she describes it trying to establish a more independent
personae because statistics indicate that her husband will likely die before
her. There is Mac, a grounded down-to-earth Franchelle Stewart Dorn, who
is an African-American gay investigative reporter that has broken her share of
barriers but is now facing early retirement as her publication moves to scale
back its print side and expand its on-line presence. Rounding out the
quartet is Sil, who is a chic successful real estate broker and most conflicted
over the ravages of time after having been dumped by her husband and in
constant competition with a youth culture so as to stay on top in her career, a
role beautifully captured by Ellen Parker.
At this fortieth annual reunion chronicling the passage of time on
the faces of these friends a new wrinkle is added to the event, Danny has been
offered a retrospective at MOMA and 18 minutes in a Ted Talk requiring her to
secure releases from her colleagues so that she can display her photographs of
them highlighting the essence of her work. "It's a formality," she
says, "You're just agreeing to let me exhibit the work I've been doing
with you for the last forty years...to show you ...so people can see what
actual women look like over four decades of their lives."
As Danny recounts at the Ted Talk which opens the play, these
women illustrate her generation. "They have something to tell you.
Their faces say what I can’t" since they have been a part of the key
historic and social events of the 20th century. It is each woman's response to
Danny's request that their images spanning forty years go public that creates
the dramatic conflict of the play. It also spotlights the impact of what
it means to be closer to the end, rather than the beginning of one's life, a
stage where a younger generation makes an individual feel invisible and
irrelevant. A feeling which certainly is not relegated only to the female
gender of our society.
Says Gabby, "On my entire walk through this city no one
looked at me." Reflects Mac over a T.S Eliot quote, "I
grow old. I grow old. I wear the bottom of my trousers rolled....I used to
think the rolled trousers were the style of how you dressed when you got old. I
seriously didn't understand the implication. That…this guy's pants were too
long because his...bones demineralized and he got...shorter."
Whether or not she expected it, Danny is met with resistance from
her friends concerning the display of the unvarnished photos recounting the
evolution of their lives. Sil feels threatened by the circulation of the
increasingly unglamorous photos of her tallying "the forty years of our
gradual decline...I don't want to be a mirror. I don't like the idea of being
assessed by how I weathered the years." Mac is concerned that
"all this attention might resurrect something from the past you don't want
to deal with again." Only Gabby is amenable to having the world see
her with gray hair and an increasingly lined face.
Ms. Miller expands the focus of her play beyond the stories of
these four late middle-aged women rounding out the circle of life picture by
adding Danny's mother Bess (touchingly realized by Beth Dixon) and thirtyish
techie son, Simon ( a charismatic Charles Socarides) who is deeply committed to
both his mother and grandmother.
She also gives a respectful nod to Wendy Wasserstein's landmark
plays Uncommon Women and Others and The Heidi Chronicles which
address a number of similar issues though Wasserstein conveys an innate anger
concerning the compromises life imposes on her characters while Miller conveys
empathy For anyone over the age of forty, Danny's observation of the
public's perception of aging really hits home, "She got so old...Like it
was a crime...Like she did it purposefully to affront us."
The play eventually comes full circle closing at the Ted Talk
where Danny lovingly reveals the photos of her friends as they change through
the cycle of life.
Director Emily Mann has helped each actor fashion a fully
three-dimensional character making the women's interaction loving, tense and
real. This is accented by Jennifer von Mayrhauser's complementary
costuming. The smooth scenic shifts between the Ted Talk, extended care
facility and Danny's loft owe much to the skill of scenic and projection
designer Beowulf Boritt
20th Century Blues
Off Broadway play
One hour forty minutes
Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, Midtown
Closing Date January 28, 2018