What it Means to Grow Old Passionately Portrayed
in Lil’s 90th at Long Wharf

By Amy J. Barry

Conveying a relationship that’s as comfortable and easy as a worn pair of slippers, it is no surprise that David Margulies and Lois Smith—the stars of Lil’s 90th—are real-life partners.

The family drama billed as “A Late Life Love Story” by Darci Picoult, directed by Jo Bonney, about what it means to grow old in contemporary society, is making its world premiere at Long Wharf Theatre.

It is a subject that couldn’t be more topical to baby boomers trying to navigate the delicate balance of both caring for and respecting the independence of parents who are living longer—as well as imagining how their own “golden” years will play out.

Margulies is truly delightful as Charlie, a devoted and loving husband of 65 years, planning his wife’s 90th gala birthday party where she will make her singing debut. Smith is equally engaging as Lil, the no-nonsense, spunky family matriarch—the glue that attempts to hold it all together.

A stage actor in her younger years, Picoult glosses over why exactly Lil had never sung in front of an audience, but the play is focused on the here and now and how Lil’s family is helping to make her dream come true at last.

Charlie invites both Lil and his overweight divorced daughter Stephanie (Kristine Nielsen) to sit on his lap, when she comes over to her parent’s New York City apartment with her endless, anal-retentive lists of what needs to be done for the party. As ridiculous as it is, both women give in to Charlie because he is so irresistible. Like an overgrown child, he runs back and forth to the kitchen for more chocolate pudding, mischievously squirting mounds of whipped cream on top.

But something is happening beneath the happy surface, foreshadowing the shifting direction the play will take. Charlie goes out and buys milk when there is already a container in the refrigerator, repeats himself, becomes

It turns out that the birthday surprise Charlie drops hints about to his grandson Tommy (Nick Blaemire) while he’s at the apartment rehearsing for the party with his girlfriend Deirdre (Lucy Walters)—they’ re both musicians—is more of a nightmare than a surprise. Charlie, who’s always gambled on a small scale, playing Poker and purchasing lottery tickets, has become embroiled in a large-scale scam, forking up their life savings to conmen.

The focus of the play becomes how various family members respond to Charlie’s actions that likely indicate the early stages of Alzheimer’s. We observe their initial denial and shock, followed by anger at each other and themselves—Tommy’s anger at his mother for being so timid and incapable of taking charge and Lil’s anger at herself for not seeing what was coming or knowing how to stop it. And ultimately, the love that proves far stronger than the weakening mind of a beloved husband, father, and grandfather.

It’s too bad that Picoult wrote such a contrived and predictable closing scene because until then, we believe these characters, brought to life by this superb ensemble. What draws us into the subtle dynamics and building tensions of a family in crisis, now shows the heavy directorial hand of a schmaltzy, made-for-TV movie with the family “on stage” performing at Lil’s birthday party, spelling out the obvious, instead of leaving something to the audience’s imagination.

But despite a less than satisfying ending, Lil’s 90th brings two marvelous veteran actors together in a compassionate work that speaks to difficult, relevant issues about aging, which we will all, after all, eventually find ourselves facing.

Lil’s 90th continues at Long Wharf’s Stage II, 222 Sargent Drive, New Haven, through Feb. 7. For tickets and times, call the box office at 203-787-4282 or online www.longwharf.org.

This review was published in Shore Publishing Community Newspapers and online Zip06.com, Jan. 27-28, 2010.

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