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Saturday, April 27, 2013

A REVIEW OF "ASSISTED LIVING" AT ACT- A CONTEMPORARY THEATRE—CHOOSE TO DIE LAUGHING

Pictured Kurt Beattie and Tim Gouran
Photo: (c) LaRae Lobdell
Laughter, no matter how genuine, can also feel like whistling in the dark when theatrical comedy looks too much like possible reality. I had a hunch I would enjoy the world premiere of Katie Forgette’s play Assisted Living—a Mainstage Production in The Falls Theatre at ACT, April 19-May 12—and oh how I did. I laughed hard and often, like everyone around me. But I think my own laughter hid an emotion felt by many others in the audience: foreboding.
I loved this play and I highly recommend it. I consider the writing brilliant and the acting superb.  But it didn’t take long to understand why the theater’s press release said Assisted Living “ ... takes a darkly comical look at America’s current health care system and where it could be headed.” The story is set in a future version of our nation that we hope we’ll never see, after the collapse of the health care system and the demise of Medicare. With so many baby boomers now old and ill, and space at a premium, prisons have been emptied and their inmates sent to Pakistan, so prison buildings can be used as elder care institutions under the Senior Provision Act, a.k.a “SPA.”
MITZI GRABS Laura Kenny Tim Gouran
Photo: Alan Alabastro
Even if you have a healthy appreciation for the “gallows humor” secretly shared among people who work in law enforcement or medicine, you might not be prepared for the opening scene. It’s nighttime in a prison-turned-assisted living facility. A young orderly named Kevin, prone to horseplay and singing to himself, steers a loaded gurney into a darkened lobby, pulls back a rug, lifts a hidden hatch cover, and dumps a corpse down a chute. That is, of course, after removing the dead woman’s bracelet. He yells to an unseen person below, “Stiff. Incoming!”

Get used to it. In what we hope is only a side-splitting farce, the now elderly baby boomers end up in government-run nursing homes, with all their assets sold at government-run auctions in order to pay for every single item needed for their government-run care, even bags for bodily fluids. No mooching off Uncle Sam in SPA Facility No. 273! In an ultra-conservative society, it’s downright unpatriotic to ask for any help from your fellow citizens who pay taxes.
And those people who ever ate junk food, gained weight, smoked, drank, or did anything else in their lives that possibly led to their chronic health problems (or, in other words, were human) are considered immoral, unpatriotic leaches on society, and disposable, for the good of the taxpayers. In order to save money, this place even has a robot named “Hal” for a night nurse. We never see him, but the idea of this inhuman machine patrolling the darkened halls felt frightening and creepy to me, as did the ever present hypodermic needle gun, ready to over medicate anyone who did not comply.
Pictured Tim Gouran and Jeff Steitzer
Photo: (c) LaRae Lobdell
When new resident Joe Taylor (played by ACT’s Artistic Director Kurt Beattie) moves into No. 273, it isn’t because he had squandered his God-given former good health. He’d been mugged, resulting in a fall that broke his hip, causing him to be hospitalized more than once, ill with pneumonia, etc. etc. No matter. To the bitter, unsmiling, accusatory and hysterically funny Nurse Claudia (Julie Briskman), these inmate-residents are all the same: worthless—and unworthy of respect, dignity, or compassion. As a member of a generation that expected entitlements, but didn’t get, she now resents the baby boomers and her anger is palpable.

Deeply disturbed by what he finds in his new environment, Taylor tries to lift the spirits of his fellow residents. He had been an actor, and when he discovers other former actors in his midst, he convinces them to read plays and give a holiday performance for families and fellow residents. Those other actors are—Beatrice “Judy” Hart (Marianne Owen, Beattie’s real-life wife) and Wally Carmichael (Jeff Steitzer), the later from whom Nurse Claudia withholds hearing aid batteries.  Another member of their troupe, a former nurse named Mitzi Kramer (Laura Kenny) copes with her circumstances (and incontinence) by caring for others and maintaining her cheerfulness. With some cooperation from the orderly Kevin (Tim Gouran) they secretly rehearse. 
TWINKIE Julie Briskman Jeff Steitzer
Photo: Alan Alabastro
Nurse Claudia is outraged at the idea of this uprising, which upsets her tightly ordered world. She dominates through her strict schedule of too much quiet time and too little visiting time, and she controls through fear, medical sedation, and the constant threat of banishment to the first floor, from which people never return. But rest assured; good, at least temporarily, triumphs over evil, and the plot takes a satisfying twist at the end.
All through the drama, razor-sharp humor, combined with moments of poignancy and tenderness kept me 100% engaged. But having already read a shocking article in the play’s program—filled with statistics about how aging baby boomers will impact the health care system—that projected scenario weighed on my mind even as I laughed. And I knew too much about a real assisted living facility, where both my father and mother-in-law once lived.


TRIUMPH Tim Gouran Jeff Steitzer Laura Kenny Marianne Owen Kurt Beattie
Photo: Alan Alabastro

Whether you laugh your head off or feel a little shiver down your spin (or most likely both) you will recognize three important things:

1.) ACT has done it again, giving us the highest quality theater experience, a feast of talent.

2.) Writer Katie Forgette (whose husband, the acclaimed actor R. Hamilton Wright, directed the play) is a genius. I can’t wait to see what she will create next.

3.) Art matters. If anyone ever needed an example of how art examines issues in our society and makes us think, this is it.

Don’t let the disturbing parts keep you from enjoying the outrageous humor this play offers. Your own mind will scare you more than anything you’ll see here. For many of us in the audience, perhaps the creepiest thing of all is realizing the baby boomer generation is now the oldest surviving one, in this not-too-distant fictional future. The show opens with the Beattle’s song “Help” and closes with Bob Dylan’s “Times They Are a Changin,” and the juxtaposition of my generation’s music with images of the nation’s oldest citizens felt like a shock.

Go see this play. And take an ultra-conservative politician with you. Please.

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4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Candice, I love your review! Nice work. I'd like to see the play done in Bellingham, at the Theater Guild. Is there a way to get that done?

Stormy

Candace Brown said...

I'm not sure, Stormy, but I would hope so. My suggestion would be to have whoever is in charge of the Theater Guild look into it. I will also try to pass the word along.

Thanks for your nice comment!

Anonymous said...

Well done!

Candace Brown said...

Thank you very much.