Family dramas focus on personal memories, and “The Waverly Gallery” is no exception. Using his own grandmother as inspiration, playwright Kenneth Lonergan has created Gladys Green, a Jewish grandmother in New York City, whose painful struggles with dementia affect her whole family. Make no mistake, though. Though Lonergan’s play is remarkably candid about the tragic impact of Gladys’s decline on her family and herself, it is often winningly amusing. Her grandson, Daniel Reed, frequently details her brighter moments as well. Though Lonergan’s drama clocks in at two and-a-half hours, Shakespeare & Company’s season-opening revival – expertly paced and directed by company artistic director Tina Packer – paints a masterful portrait of a beloved matriarch and those who adore her.
Set largely in Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side from 1989 to 1991, “The Waverly Gallery” is a carefully curated memory of Gladys Green, who was once a vibrant lawyer and the founder and manager of a downtown art gallery. Once a vibrant social butterfly and an active member of the American Labor Party, Gladys now often struggles to identify people correctly and find the right words during conversations. For example, she often refers to Daniel as a newspaper journalist, when he is actually a writer for the Environmental Protection Agency. Matters get especially complicated when her landlord seeks to evict her, since she does not have a lease, and replace her beloved gallery with a café.
Eventually her hold on reality becomes even more tenuous as her delusions increase and her fears about her city surroundings become more extreme. Late in the play, she repeatedly awakens Daniel one night as her disorientation deepens. Later on, family members chime in, and Gladys’s son-in-law Harold Fine admits that, “It’s no fun getting old.” Her daughter Ellen asks for a bullet to her head when she gets senile. Still, Daniel – who seems to stand in as Lonergan’s spokesman – reflects that, “it must be worth a lot to be alive.”
Gifted actress Annette Miller (“Golda’s Balcony,” which won IRNE and Norton Awards, and “4000 Miles,” among others) and her talented fellow cast members make “The Waverly Gallery” worth all theatergoers’ attention. Miller artfully captures all of the facets of Gladys’ rich personality – her feistiness, her love of family, (especially her grandson), her embrace of life and living, even in decline, and her touching vulnerability. A special highlight involves a spirited dance between Gladys and her gallery’s last exhibitor, fictional New England artist Don Bowman (based on an actual painter), played with unassuming passion by David Bertholdi. Elizabeth Rocha’s costumes for Miller are as colorful as Gladys herself. David Gow is a natural as wonderfully understanding Daniel – particularly as his grandmother makes more demands upon him. His narrative observations are nuanced and properly heartfelt. Elizabeth Aspenlieder finds all of Ellen’s sensitivity and building frustration, while Michael F. Toomey catches her husband Howard’s steady supportiveness.
At one point, Gladys mistakenly thinks Daniel is crying. There are moments in “The Waverly Gallery” when you will probably cry, and others when you will laugh. Ultimately, Lonergan’s rich dramatic brushstrokes will make you cheer.
“The Waverly Gallery,” Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, through July 14. Visit shakespeare.org or call 413-637-3353.