Best in Class: Susan Miller’s funny, moving ‘20th Century Blues’
SHEPHERDSTOWN, W. Va., July 17, 2016 – CATF’s world premiere production of Susan Miller’s “20th Century Blues” is flat-out the top hit of this annual drama festival that’s currently underway on the campus of Shepherd University. The over-arching theme of Miller’s comic yet serious drama seems to be that aging Baby Boomers ain’t dead yet and absolutely will not go gentle into that good night.
Miller’s play is almost entirely about 60-something aging Boomer women. But this is not by any means some forgettable “chick flick” play that men will instinctively wish to avoid. It’s driven by four very real flesh-and-blood professional women of the Baby Boomer generation. They’ve lived and loved, experienced ecstasy and tragedy, and still have life-problems to sort out. They’re a little worn out by life, and they seem to be creaking just a bit.
But all four remain proud and undefeated and aren’t about to suffer premature burial at the hands of America’s still youth-obsessed culture that would like them all to just go away and become invisible just like old people are supposed to do.
As the lights come up, we catch high-end professional photographer Danny (Betsy Aidem) midstream giving a TED (Technology-Entertainment-Design) to either a live or YouTube audience (including us), complete with projected graphics. It’s a nice start, a bit like a mini-frame tale, but it gets us into essence of the play.
We quickly shift to a pair of prequel scenes. One transports us to the vacant interior of a condo/apartment that poised and meticulously attired Sil (Alexandra Neil), Sil—a (presumably) high-end real-estate agent—is attempting to peddle.
The other scene finds Danny involved in a fruitless discussion with her fast-aging mom, Bess (Mary Suib) in the latter’s clean but claustrophobic extended-care bedroom. Bess’ distracted, otherworldly responses to her daughter make it obvious the black hole of dementia has already settled upon her. It’s a frustrating, uncomfortable moment, but also one that many current Boomers have already experienced.
Next, we’re whisked away into the kitchen, living and studio space of Danny’s posh, upscale Manhattan condo where she’s busily preparing for the main event: a visit by Sil and two more of her longtime closest friends, Gabby (Kathryn Grody), a kind-hearted veterinarian whose amiable garrulousness is a play on her name; and Mac (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) a congenial but tough-as-nails early feminist journalist who’s encountered and reported on everything from culture and politics to the seamier side of life in the city.
As the guests arrive the play quickly becomes a George Bernard Shaw gabfest as character and self-revelation become the focus rather than the plot, even though mini plot threads do advance, namely Mac’s somewhat secret lesbianism, her early, unrequited crush on Danny and the “youth movement” at her newspaper that threatens to cut her loose; Danny’s and Sil’s lack of current, meaningful romantic attachments; Sil’s almost-pathological fear of looking old and failing in her profession because of it; Danny’s fear that her adopted son Simon (Jason Babinsky), currently searching for his birth mother, will end up hating his adopted mom; and Gabby’s obsessive fear that her beloved but aging husband will end up pre-deceasing her when she’s least prepared for it.
Fear is the unpleasant undercurrent running through this play. It’s driven by this quartet of accomplished, professional Boomer women who suddenly realize they’re drawing closer to oblivion. Yet like typical Boomers, they’re not remotely ready to let go and give up.
As if to emphasize this, Danny has designed this current gathering of friends as perhaps a final act in a photographic documentary of her amigas that she’s quietly been assembling over the many years of their friendship.
This unlikely cadre of female Boomer friends first randomly encountered one another in a jail cell back in 1968, a year and an era where it was decidedly unfashionable not to have spent a night in the slammer for protesting the Vietnam War or some other vital but fashionable cause. Their mutual bonding proved instantaneous and lasting even as the four friends traveled elsewhere to begin new careers over the roughly four decades following their initial encounter.
Over all this time, photographer Danny has been taking black and white photographs of her friends during each more or less annual gathering. Taken together, these photos comprise a living, private scrapbook of their friendship as happiness, sorrow, success, failures—and age—have colored their lives and their portraits. But now, as part of a museum retrospective of her now famous photographs, Danny wants to take a final photo to conclude this biographical series and put the whole “four friends” sequence front and center in her upcoming retrospective.
But Danny meets with unexpected resistance from her pals. It’s this resistance, based on private fears, that come to jeopardize their friendship by re-opening life’s past unpleasantries and insecurities all four women thought they’d dispatched for good long ago. As the four friends discuss past memories and continuing hopes, we find much to identify with within ourselves, and as the play’s touching and somewhat unexpected final scene draws to a close, its mini story arcs achieve satisfying if occasionally poignant resolution.
“Wise, witty and warm” are the kind of critic-clichés that can, with considerable accuracy, describe “20th Century Blues.” But these terms are inadequate to express the emotional depth, grasp and understanding that permeate this wonderful, holistic play.
“20th Century Blues” is CATF 2016’s “Best in Show.” The acting is heartfelt and well-informed and the play’s four admittedly 60-something leads—Betsy Aidem, Alexandra Neil, Franchelle Stewart Dorn and Kathryn Grody—might very well be giving CATF audiences the best ensemble performances of their lives. Likewise, Mary Suib and Jason Babinsky season their smaller but still key roles with the right human touch.
Ed Herendeen, who directs this production, has a deep grasp of both his players and the drama’s deep emotional undercurrent, helping his fine cast not only to understand Miller’s characters but to actually become those characters. It’s one of his finest directorial efforts to date.
At the conclusion of the play and after the players took their bows and departed, the projection screens with which the play began suddenly displayed a remarkably organic final photo montage. Upon rising to leave the theater, the majority of the opening night audience turned back toward the stage and remained for the longest time, carefully taking in this surprising and touching display. People simply did not leave the theater. We’ve never seen any reaction to any new play quite like this one, which was as clear an indication as any that Miller has created something deeply moving and very special.
Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)
Details for CATF 2016:
When: All the plays we’re reviewing here are continuing in repertory through the end of this month. As in previous years, matinee and evening performances are held from Wednesday through Sunday throughout the Festival. CATF 2016 opened last weekend and wraps on Sunday, July 31, 2016. For dates and details, including how to get there, where to stay, etc., visit the CATF website.
Tickets: Single ticket prices are $62. Four-show and five-show discount packages (Rep Passes) are available, ranging from $112-255. Additional ticket savings are available for military personnel and families (as part of the Blue Star Theater Program), students, seniors, patrons 30 and under, and West Virginia residents. We’d note that while single tickets are often available, you’ll want to check availability the moment you finish this preview article. That’s because those plays that start to develop a buzz (one or more often do) will start selling out fast as the word spreads.
If you’re in the Shepherdstown vicinity, you can purchase tickets directly through the Theater Festival Box Office, open off-season Monday to Friday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. EDT. Otherwise, call 800-999-CATF (2283), or visit CATF’s online box office.
Social media connections (#CATF) can be made at twitter.com/thinktheater and facebook.com/CATFatSU.
Important Note: If you plan to hang out in the Shepherdstown area for a couple of days to take in most if not all of the plays, be sure to nail arrangements down now for your overnight stay and for dining options. While Shepherdstown has a surprising abundance of rooms and dining choices, a lot of people are in town for the festival and dining reservations, in particular, are a must.
If bookings prove tough, there are additional dining and hotel options in nearby locales such as Charlestown, West Virginia, to the east and a few options in Martinsburg and Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, to the west.