Save It for the Judge

Though formulaic and flawed, Grace and Glorie has its moments.

Gloria, a New Yorker relocated to backwoods Virginia, volunteers for Hospice. Her third client is the intransigent Grace, a spunky oldster living in “the granny house” on the land she and her late husband farmed together. Hence Thomas Ziegler’s Grace and Glorie, your basic heartwarming play about two very different people overcoming their prejudices, playing at Castro Valley’s Chanticleers Theatre.

Grace insists she doesn’t need help, and finds the whole hospice idea absurd. “You volunteer to help people die?” she asks. “Is this some kind of weird Yankee custom I’ve never heard of?”

But Gloria is determined to ease the ultrareligious older woman’s passage, even if it means that she must reveal her real motivation: she’s lost a child, so she’s trying to understand death better, a real task since she can barely say the word aloud. Of course, the two will become friends despite themselves, each learning valuable lessons from the other, whether it’s how to cook eggs on a wood-burning stove or why a little makeup here and there is not a sign that a woman is going straight to hell. Gloria will learn that having something to believe in gives you something to live for, and Grace will get the unasked-for opportunity to question whether she’s accomplished anything of worth in her life.

Meanwhile, Grace’s surly grandson (he had to be paid to bring her home from the hospital) wants to know when she’s going to finish dying so he can go to the stock-car races in Florida, and a developer who bought Grace’s land for a laughable sum is busy knocking down her apple orchard so he can build a timeshare community called “Apple Glade.”

If Grace and Glorie sounds suspiciously like other plays we’ve seen around town lately — I’m thinking of Visiting Mr. Green and to a lesser extent The Road to Mecca — there’s a reason: this formula is older than Grace’s beloved Blue Ridge Mountains. And as in all formula plots, there are certain conventions to be followed. Old people are feisty, witty, and set in their ways. Young people bumble about energetically, hopelessly out of their element. The two have a civilizing influence on each other, and then one dies, or learns to live. Grace and Glorie even starts the same way Visiting Mr. Green does — a young person lets herself into the rustic home of an older person, apologizing as she does so that “the door was unlocked.” Add that to the formula: old people don’t lock their doors.

Shows with only two characters need to lean hard on the acting. Here, although one actor seemed much more natural than the other, the chemistry between the two is excellent, and what could be a long slog passes at a good clip. Suzanne Ochs’ Gloria is quick-witted, efficient, and brittle. I found Ochs a little excessive in the emotional moments; it seemed that she was substituting artifice for a real connection with her role, but at other mo-ments, especially the humorous ones, she held up well. Sharon Perras seemed more believable as Grace Stiles, even if her physical characterization of a old, pain-ridden woman occasionally slipped to reveal the limber golfer of her program bio. Her character asks one of the hardest questions in this play, namely what right does another person have to force us to rethink everything we hold dear. Perras gets those notes exactly right, and she shows off excellent comic timing as well.

As might be expected with a formulaic plot, the script takes few risks, and there’s an uncomfortable undercurrent of backlash thinking, such as in the death of Gloria’s son. She had everything — a career she enjoyed, a nice home, a sweet and brilliant child, a hunky lover on the side. She even had a brand-new, very expensive car, in which to have the accident where the beloved child would die. Stunned by her son’s death, when her husband finds a job in Virginia, she leaves everything behind to come with him. The equation couldn’t be spelled out more clearly: when a woman oversteps her bounds, she is punished. In fact, the same could be said for Grace, who had a crush on a young pastor early in her marriage and was chastised for it by her husband.

Why couldn’t it have been Gloria’s husband behind the wheel? Why does she have to be the one to give up a job she loves? Why does Grace have to stop going to church when she didn’t do anything wrong? Why, for that matter, am I hoping to see some real feminist consciousness in this thing beyond two women exploring the outskirts of what women’s liberation might mean? There’s an overworked “our sister Eve” (as in Eden, as in the apple) theme that is apparently supposed to explain female suffering; I say save it for the judge.

On top of which, the story is overstuffed with nasty, one-sided men, all offstage. It should be enough that we have two women getting to know each other as one dies and the other makes peace with herself. The evil developer who can barely wait to dynamite a sick old lady out of her home is an inorganic element, thrown in to create more tension in a story that doesn’t need it. Cancer and its impact is dramatic enough. Coming to terms with mortality, helplessness, pain, loss, and the endless questions about what one has achieved in life covers a lot of ground. Yet it seems Ziegler felt that he needed to give these two women more obstacles, and while he ties up all the ends neatly (perhaps too neatly), I found all those obstacles distracting.

There are some moments where it seems that Ziegler wasn’t paying attention to continuity. He establishes early on that Grace is illiterate, yet Gloria keeps giving her things to read. I’m not sure if this is carelessness on Ziegler’s part, or if we’re to understand that Gloria just can’t get her mind around the idea that Grace doesn’t read. The audience I was part of caught this too; I heard people mumbling “But she can’t read.” In fact, this audience wasn’t letting anything by: True to the “feisty old person” stereotype (most of the audience had to be in their sixties and up), these folks were saying exactly what they thought, as soon as they thought it.

I wasn’t planning to comment on the overlong set changes, except that the two gentlemen behind me were doing so, loudly and gleefully. “Hey, there’s a cat burglar,” said one as the lights went up slightly to reveal the stage manager doggedly gathering props to take offstage. “Boy, you can’t leave the house for a minute before this guy comes and takes away all your food.” And it was a woman sitting in front of me who caught the fact that the apples picked fresh from Grace’s orchard apparently grew with their varietal stickers attached. Hard crowd, yes, but they seemed to enjoy an often engagingly written story that for all of its lack of originality hit close to home.

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