Geezers. Just reading the title of Tommy Lee Johnston’s play brings a quick smile to the lips and the expectation of a farce around aging boomers. Now, while there are some pretty good gags and laugh out loud jokes here, this is a very human and socially relevant drama.
So what is it exactly? Well it’s a very poignant play set in a retirement home. And it is a coming of age drama. But not the usual type that just came to your mind. Instead we experience the growth of Jack, a socially inept young man of 27 as he ventures out on his own. But there is also the personal growth and awareness in middle-aged Gina who is the head nurse at the home. And finally a new openness, acceptance, and truth around their own lives comes to the residents we get to visit here.
First we meet Jack, portrayed by Danny Polaski, as he interviews for a job that he has already been given by the unseen administrator of the home. The fact that he is being interviewed for a job that he already has is very confusing to him and he reaches a near catatonic state trying to understand the situation as the head nurse, Gina, asks him questions. At first he would seem entirely unfit for the job…with no resume and no prior work experience…but then, having cared for his own mother until her recent passing he might have the right tool set to work with the home’s various residents. Here Gina is played as a very patient and seemingly in command manager by Becca Richards. That isn’t necessarily always the case. And although she wants Jack to start immediately, she allows him to delay another day. He is to replace a much loved employee who left under a cloud.
We now move on the Jack’s first day on the job and Polaski gives us a clear picture of a Jack having a difficult time coping with his new situation. But he clearly wants to do a good job. We also are introduced to the other principal characters at work here, Emily, played by Diane Kallas, who has dementia and is happy to watch television, any television, as long as it has commercials that she can sing along with. And then we meet the two resident curmudgeons, Ray, played by Paul Wier, and Neil, played by Bob Hurd. These two gentlemen play a mean and hurtful prank on Jack. Egging them on is the self-centered, retired actress, Kate, who is at first, a charming and playful character provided by Paula Nordwig.
Given his social discomfort, it is surprising that Jack returns for a second day after his hazing on day one. I am not sure whether it is the need for the job, fear of a new ostracizing from Gina and crew, a responsibility for/to Gina, or a sense of moral duty to his late mother who enjoyed her time working here.
In conversation, the residents find out that Jack is a writer and has written two plays. Kate of course is curious and demands an opportunity to read them. After convincing Jack to share them, she and Neil provide a critique and find them incredibly derivative. Then a plan is hatched for Jack to interview the various residents of the home…they all have original, unique, and personal stories to tell and can provide plenty of new material for his writing efforts. Jack is incredibly hesitant at first but as Neil and Ray explain, she won’t take no for an answer so he is essentially already committed.
And this is where we start to feel the growth in all of our characters. Polaski’s Jack develops as an individual and has a growing empathy for the residents, but he never completely loses his fear and unease. And Gina recognizes that Jack is also having a positive effect on the residents…even apparently reaching inside Emily’s fog from time to time. Jack eventually starts to revel in his role as listener and story keeper.
The play is presented as two acts, each over just an hour long. The first is setting up the characters and relationships, while the second brings us the growth and release we didn’t initially expect. But instead of traditional ‘scenes’, the action unfolds in short vignettes separated by black outs and musical interludes of 1950s and 1960s pop hits. Someone was singing/humming along during these…it wasn’t me…but I wanted to!
The audience will shed some tears here and feel a tightness in their throats as the stories are quietly told. And the story telling takes on clever plot changes…as the contemporary characters start their stories, a transition occurs, and Jack moves cross stage and interacts with a young, age appropriate for the story being told, version of the character. And here the seamless shift is effected by Mikael Hager as Young Neil, Max Levine as Young Ray, and Amy Wickland as Young Kate.
Emily’s story is something different and comes to us from the visits of Jenny, played by Angie Rodenkirch, who is trying to break through to Emily…and in some ways is able to do just that. Kallas gives us an emphatic Emily, providing rousing sing-alongs with the TV and occasionally some very lucid interjections into the conversations going on in the room.
It seems remarkable that the Lake Country Players are able to find and present edgy plays like this and make them entirely their own. Of course the perfect casting and flawless staging designed by director Nancy Hurd has a lot to with the success. And Hurd also is responsible for the spot on costuming as well…including a very jaunty beret ala a contemporary Joni Mitchell look for Emily.
The play continues through February 11th, 2024 at the Lake Country Playhouse in Hartland WI. It was sold out for the matinee that I attended this past Sunday so don’t dawdle in ordering tickets. Information and tickets are available here:
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