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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

THEATER
The Waverly Gallery is a wise play about the ravages of time on the mind, and Eileen Heckart gives a career-capping performance.

FILM
Brutality and innocence fatally collide in a haunting entry from Britain, The Last September.

AND CONSIDER THIS
Margaret Sanger explains it all in this reissue of her autobiography; the jazz legend Mary Lou Williams gets the star treatment in a new book about her life in music. 

THEATER

A Slow, Dark Descent 

The Waverly Gallery by Kenneth Lonergan
Directed by Scott Ellis

    If death is an undiscovered country from which no traveler returns, extreme old age can be a dark no-man's land with no clear horizon. That arid and lonely wilderness is traversed by Eileen Heckart in a fine new off-Broadway play and her character, Gladys Green, is touching, maddening and admirable, often simultaneously. When first seen, Gladys is an independent-minded and garrulous widow, oblivious to her increasing deafness, the repetition of her comments and persistent questions and the rolled-eyed exasperation of her family. Gladys is making a slow and agonizing descent into senility, and they are helpless to stop the ravages to her once sharp mind. 
     Gladys had been a typical sort of New York City Jewish woman of a bygone era: bright and energetic, well-educated, a lawyer and an art lover and an enthusiastic activist for all sorts of liberal causes. If you needed anything done, just go to Gladys. She was someone with a genuine liking for people and an inexhaustible curiosity about them. For years she has been running the little out-of-the-way Waverly Gallery in Greenwich Village, supporting artists, giving them space to show their work less because of the quality than because she liked them and wanted to do something to further their career. Now that she's in her late 80s, Gladys is barely holding her own. Few, if any customers venture in, but following about a familiar daily routine in the neighborhood she knows so well and keeping the gallery running gives her stability and a sense of purpose. 
    It's a precarious balance for the entire family that's abruptly overturned when the owner decides he needs the space for his adjacent hotel and tells Gladys' daughter Ellen that the old woman must vacate in a few more months.  Ellen, her husband Howard and her son Daniel argue over what's to be done, sure that Gladys can't hear what they are discussing. Unaware of their conversation, she prattles on about her own concerns, but suddenly catches a phrase about someone going to be kicked out. Fear flickers across her face, and she asks who it is. Caught out, they hurry to answer that it's nobody she knows. The moment encapsulates the family dilemma: they want to spare her from the reality at any cost, while they dodge the one single truth about her increasing mental deterioration. Little by little, the woman they know is disappearing, her mind and vivid personality vanishing.  All the parts are there, but they are jumbled together. "If I ever get that way," Ellen tries to tell Daniel, but he stops her before she can finish and won't hear it. You won't, he tells her, no, you won't. When she was young, Ellen would probably have said the same thing to Gladys. 
     Playwright Lonergan takes a clear and unyielding look at dementia's savage destruction, and his drama is emotionally moving without for a minute being maudlin. Director Scott Ellis skillfully moves his actors around the small stage of Manhattan's Promenade Theater with scenes taking place in the gallery, Ellen and Howard's apartment, Gladys' apartment and a hallway of the building in which both Gladys and Daniel live. At one point, Gladys wakes in the night with a bad dream and walks down the hall to awaken Daniel. He manages to get her back to her own door. She appears again, but we realize there's been a passage of time and Gladys is more confused and fretful than before. He returns her to her own place, but once more there is a sense of passing days and now she no longer recognizes him.  In a movie, such a transition would be done with makeup changes and in several takes. Here, the actress crosses the stage and the sad, subtle transformations takes place before our eyes. 
     The Who's Who entry in the program states that Eileen Heckart "has three sons and two granddaughters. She also has an Oscar, two Emmys, a Hollywood Golden Globe, a New York Drama Critics Award, four Tony nominations, three Honorary Doctorates and has been inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame.'' It doesn't list the scores of plays, films and TV programs she has been in since the '50s, and it's hardly necessary. It's enough to know that at 81 she has long been a master of the actor's art. Through her, we see all the dimensions of Gladys, a good a generous woman: her pride and stubbornness, compassion and vulnerability and above all her full humanity and ferocity for life. With their complex and fully dimensional performances, Waverly Gallery's cast of six achieves the best kind of ensemble acting, but Gladys is the focal point and so it's Heckart's play. Ever so slightly, her Gladys becomes more forgetful and more fragile, a hand tremble increased, the legs grow stiffer, the body weakens. And in Heckart's eyes we can see the futile struggle to make sense of the world and comprehend the terrible thing that is happening. 
 

FILMS

Through a Glass Darkly 

The Last September Directed by Deborah Warner 

The Anglo-Irish aristocracy were in tatters by 1920, and their existence was fast coming to a close. That's tragedy enough, but the greater  tragedy was that they dare not notice it. The Last September, adapted from a novel by Elizabeth Bowen, concerns a family in Ireland's County Cork in 1920, and it has a melancholy, Chekovian feel. These are people gripping a past while it is rapidly turning to dust in their hands. In their country house, Sir Richard and Lady Myra (British actors Michael Gambon and Maggie Smith) go about life as usual with a kind of foolish bravery. He busies himself with gadgets, and she worries over the roses and the insurgency of ants making their abode on the house's front step. The couple are unfailingly gracious and courteous, politely but firmly upholding class divisions, inviting  friends for an afternoon of tennis on the lawn, and showing concern that Sir Richard's orphaned niece Lois not get seriously infatuated with the young British captain who is in love with her. He doesn't, concludes Lady Myra, have the look of money. 
    Brutality surrounds their false serenity. Soldiers are being murdered by local Irish rebels, and the most violent among them is Peter Connolly, a local lad who had been a friend of Lois in earlier years. As Lois, British actress Keeley Hawkes has the fresh beauty and child-like naturalness before the camera  of the young Audrey Hepburn. Despite knowing that Connolly is a killer, she is attracted to him, and what begins as a harmless game of defying authority turns ugly. Innocence is betrayed, and Lois unwittingly  becomes the cause of another's death. As a family guest and catalyst for the final horror, Irish actress Fiona Shaw shines with the brilliance and cold cheer of a well-cut diamond.
   The inability to see what is all around is a constant visual theme of director Warner, a stage veteran whose first film this is. A glass  garden ball refracts images upside down, people are seen through windows, reflected in mirrors or polished surfaces. Lois carries around a  telescope so she can see close-up what is in the distance. In the evening, guarded by British soldiers, the family dines by candlelight inside their glass conservatory. They can be seen, but do not see out. 
 

And Consider This

 Books: 
Margaret Sanger: An Autobiography 
(Cooper Square Press; 504 pages; $14.36)

When American women's health is discussed today breast cancer and heart disease are the major subjects. Not very long ago, the only issue for women everywhere was birth control and the toll numerous pregnancies took on women's physical and mental well-being. The heroine of the movement to change the thinking and give women--not men--the power over reproduction was Margaret Sanger. In this paperback reissue of her autobiography, she recalls her life as an advocate for women who was prepared to go to jail for her beliefs, and did. Her passion was kindled while watching her mother collapse under the weight of bearing and trying to care for eleven children, and Sanger's lifelong commitment to her cause was matched only by her prodigious energy. She was a radical woman and her cause was women.

Morning Glory by Linda Dahl
(Pantheon; 528 pages; $21)

Female singers have made a lasting impression on the development of jazz, and I don't have to tell you who they are. The remarkable woman whose theories, compositions, arrangements and driving piano style influenced America's musical art form was Mary Lou Williams. Her 50-year career and spiritual quest, with as many downs as ups in both, is documented in this solidly researched biography of her life and times. Author Dahl knows her subject and is painstaking in spelling out the history of jazz and Williams' role. The result may strike readers as dry, but it could be the perfect companion to the 22 numbers on the about-to-be issued BMG/RCA Victorremastering of her The London Session. Williams worked with the greats--from Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington to Miles Davis and Thelonius Monk--and people used to say that she played piano like a man. Think of it this way: wouldn't it be the highest compliment to say of a man that he played like her? Only you, Mary Lou.

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