A Bittersweet Birthday

By Geary Danihy

It is wrenching to watch someone you care for slowly slip into dementia, yet it is extremely satisfying to watch an actor enact this process with such telling nuance and sensitive understanding of the physical, emotional and psychological “signs” that are part and parcel of the decline. Hence, watching “Lil’s 90th,” which recently premiered at Long Wharf Theatre, is a bittersweet experience.

Written by Darci Picoult and sensitively directed by Jo Bonney, “Lil’s 90th” focuses on a nuclear family that initially seems to be idiosyncratically solid – there’s Grandma Lil (Lois Smith), about to celebrate her 90th birthday; Grandpa “Pop” Charlie (David Margulies), comfortably ensconced in his retirement; divorced daughter Stephanie (Kristine Nielsen), a lady who counts her meatballs twice before putting them into the sauce; her son Tommy (Nick Blaemire), a struggling musician; and his girlfriend, Deidre, (Lucy Walters), struggling along with her main squeeze.

If not exactly idyllic, this family’s life seems comfortable as its members prepare to fulfill Lil’s lifelong dream of appearing on stage. However, there’s a snake in the garden, and it’s in Charlie’s mind, slowly eating away at his common sense and business acumen. A veteran of the cut-throat “rag business,” Charlie should know better than to fall for a telephone scam that offers him a million-dollar sweepstakes prize if only he will forward money to pay taxes and other costs. But he doesn’t. He wants to surprise his wife of multiple decades with a windfall on her 90th birthday…and nothing will stop him.

The development of the story line is slow. Much of the first act is devoted to establishing the characters and focusing on the preparations for Lil’s upcoming birthday, including extended discussions about what Lil will wear. Yet there are symptoms that all is not well, and these symptoms become more manifest as Pop seeks to hide what he is doing.

There’s a false, plot-driven moment near the end of the first act when Pop derisively tosses some socks onto the floor. The action does not jive with his character – he is demented but not calculatingly cruel. However, his action allows the act to end with Lil wailing “Nooooo!” as the lights go out, a wail that speaks more to the loss of her husband’s mind that the loss of their money.

The second act is basically a descent into dementia, sidetracked by an extended cell-phone scene between Pop and Deidre that goes nowhere, but ending in a riveting and painful moment that cuts deep into the heart.

This is “antsy” theater, for the audience is slowly yet inexorably drawn into a situation that, given its druthers, it would opt out of. Captured early by the apparently “normal” interactions of the characters, the audience is taken for a ride that is part Tunnel of Love and part crossing the River Styx. How does one respond? Well, with clenched jaw and twisted fingers.
Enough can’t be said of the work of the play’s two lead actors, Smith and Marguiles (who are wife and husband in real life). They create a marriage that you believe in, a marriage that has weathered many storms only to be tossed up onto the rocks of Alzheimer’s disease. In this context, Smith is a study in controlled terror as she watches her “husband” toss away their nest-egg while proclaiming that what he is doing is “for her.”

Then there is Marguiles, who, as an audience member commented on departing the theater, absolutely “nailed it.” His desperate belief in the myth of the million-dollar windfall drives his ever increasing disassociation from reality so that, when Lil finally appears on stage at her cabaret birthday party, before an audience of long-standing friends, “Pop” becomes Lear, crazed by what he has done and by how reality will not conform to his now skewed sense of what should be.

Nielsen, as the list-bedeviled daughter, is at moments a bit too histrionic but essentially credible as a weak-willed woman who finally finds her inner strength, and Blaemire offers a workmanlike performance as a grandson torn between emotional attachment and monetary gain.

The lithe and lovely Walters is asked to play a role that seems something of an afterthought, and perhaps this is why, of all the cast members, she appears not so much to be acting as presenting who she is at the moment. Granted, Picoult has not written much for her to work with, but Walters’ mannerisms are not considered, they are, apparently, her own. Thus, she is a young actress on stage rather than a character in a play.

As for the play, in essence, what we have here is a quintessential example of modern tragedy: tragedy focused not on kings and princes but on the “little people,” those whose fall will not be marked by cataclysmic eruptions yet must be attended to, for “they” are us. Smith’s expression as she sits on a stool and decides not to sing her final cabaret number says it all – we are what we have created and cleaved to over the decades, and we cannot escape. She faces the abyss with a rueful smile.

It’s not uplifting, but it’s true, and the truth often hurts.

“Lil’s 90th” runs through Sunday, Feb. 7. For tickets or more information call 203-787-4282 or go to www.longwharf.org.

This review originally appeared in the Norwalk Citizen-News.

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