Anyone even vaguely familiar with the world of assisted living facilities and nursing homes—which should be a sizeable portion of the local population—will immediately identify with the ladies of “Waiting in the Wings,” the Noel Coward play that opened at the Flagler Playhouse last weekend and will run for three more weekends through the end of the month. Those not familiar with that world can see the play as a crash course: you’ll be getting there soon enough. Might as well see what you’re in for. Coward is a witty guide. His characters’ emotions—most of them, anyway—need no translation. And this particular cast, directed by Bruce Heighley of the Daytona Playhouse, somehow manages to pull off a very difficult and very long play without adding to anyone’s wrinkles. The ladies, as characters and actresses, win you over.
- “Waiting in the Wings” is scheduled for 10 shows: March 4,5,11,12,18,19,25 and 26 at 7:30 p.m., and March 13 and 20 at 2 p.m. The Flagler Playhouse is located at 301 East Moody Blvd. in Bunnell. Call 586-0773 for more details or visit the Playhouse website.
You’ll identify with them, appreciate them, laugh with them, because some of them are very funny even when they don’t aim to be, and you’ll feel the desperation of their fate, because all of them are prisoners many times over. They’re prisoners of their past, which carves their characters in various ways; they’re prisoners of their present home, since all retirement homes are variations on minimum to maximum security prisons; and they’re prisoners of that very nearby certainty none of them can escape. It’s not London that’s nearby anymore. It’s the cemetery. The title of the play is itself an onion of a pun, its many layers peeling off act by act with the attendant tears, though this being Noel Coward—a more British but equally literary Robert Altman—the laughs keep the weepies to designated kerchief zones.
Begin with this: “The Wings” is a charity retirement home on the outskirts of London in the 1950s. These old ladies happen to be ex-actresses living out their last days. They’d rather not be there. No one happily goes into retirement homes: they can be sordid, humiliating, and especially depressing, considering the imminent final curtain, though this one happens to be on the dignified side of cozy (thanks in good part to a set as if borrowed from a high-end assisted living facility). They’re waiting in “The Wings” not for that familiar acclaim, but for the icier call of the Reaper, whose first initial is not so coincidentally shared with that of reviewers: as they wait, the ladies are themselves their own worst critics, reviewing lives, loves, lusts and fames now lost for good except in memory—and worse, being each other’s worst critics. These ladies still have bite, and plenty of theatrics (sometimes too many theatrics).
There’s not much of a plot. This is about characters, and character. May Davenport (Anji Brazell) is the queen bee of the lot, suffering them a little less than she suffers her own humiliation at being where she is. Brazell turns her Davenport, once the Grande Dame of the London stage, into an Arctic army of one. (Not to worry: she also eventually helps global warming along.) Lotta Bainbridge (Kathy Thompson) was her big rival in the old days, on stage and off. Bainbridge had supposedly stolen her man. It so happens that Bainbridge moves into The Wings. You can imagine the resulting collisions. On top of that there’s the bit about the ladies pining for a solarium their home’s board of directors refuses to pay for, a gossipy reporter (Violet Stoll) who drops in to do an exposé on the old lot, and the back and forth between Perry Lascoe (Bruce Popielarski, almost the only man in the show) and Sylvia Archibald (Carrie Von Tol), the younger two who run the place and whose presence, like all administrators, isn’t always necessary.
The story as such is a bit disjointed, and the play never gets over the fact, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not the story that counts. It’s about the characters’ interactions with each other and with the bittersweetness of their circumstance. There are heartbreaking anxieties and even more heartbreaking realities, including, front and center, the dementia of one of the residents. Sarita Myrtle is played wonderfully by Monica Toner, who bursts into scenes from plays past by means of her last dialogues with a world she no longer grasps, causing delicious ripples: “Miss Myrtle, you know you can’t quote Macbeth around here. It upsets the others.” Leave it to Coward to turn Alzheimer’s into the comic relief of the show. Humanity’s worst disease can use it.
But every cast member is a jolt of recognition. There’s Eleanor Coyne as Estelle Craven, who wears her name well as the compulsive crier (a little too compulsive), there’s Pauline Roddick as the Irish Dierdre O’Malley, to whom Philip Roth should have dedicated his recent Indignation; she dies suddenly, after dancing an Irish jig, and Ms. May’s last stab is characteristic: “The luck of the Irish.” There’s Dorothy Monahan as Cora Clark, whose sardonic one-liners remind you that even an old age home full of old ladies can reek of locker room banter; there’s Nancy Howell as the peace-making Bonita Belgrave, whose decency is a foil to everyone else’s arrows.
You never know to what extent these ladies of the stage are putting on a show for each other, and how much of their behavior is sincere. The line between acting and reality is always blurred. In “Wings,” the blur is part of the play, part of the game Coward is playing with his characters, and of course with the audience.
It doesn’t always work. The reconciliation scene between May and Bainbridge is as moving as Coward intended it. The semi-reconciliation scene between Bainbridge and her son (Terrence Van Auken) is not, though it’s meant to be: the whole thing could have been done by long-distance phone, and even then Thompson loses the control that makes the rest of her performance so strong. Her character is forced to navigate many more shoals than the rest. In a play that long it can take its toll. The play also sanitizes the opening moments of Act I: the wordless carting off of a dead body on a stretcher. That moment unnecessarily is erased in the current version.
There are some salty ironies along the way, particularly in light of the Playhouse’s recent and somewhat embarrassing little tragicomedy of its own (meaning the Playhouse board’s clumsy handling of ex-director and board member John Sbordone’s resignation). There are a few pointedly contemptuous lines (“You know how actors and actresses are on a committee”) and some freewheeling boozing on stage (the actual Playhouse board wasn’t happy with Sbordone’s occasional glass of wine while he worked). The sadder irony is that “Waiting in the Wings,” a play about finalities out of our control, had been one of Sbordone’s last daring choices for the Playhouse, made when he thought he still controlled his fate there. Even if he were to show up in the audience in the next three weeks, he’d be outnumbered by board member-actresses on stage, who sealed it. The blurry lines between stage and reality in “Waiting in the Wings” effortlessly accommodate that subplot, too.
“Waiting in the Wings” was Coward’s 50th play, and also his last, at least as a complete work. When it was first staged in Dublin and London in 1960, critics disliked it. They didn’t know what to make of it. Back then few people aged in retirement homes. They either died or, thanks to World War II not long before, had been killed already. Europe was busy repopulating, not aging. Coward was ahead of his time.
“Waiting in the Wings” is one of those rare works that become less dated over the years. It’s the signature play of 2011, the first year of the Boomers’ retirement, and as such an inspired choice at the Playhouse—and a timely one. It should have a long, healthy run for the next few decades, illuminating more honestly and poignantly what nursing home and assisted living welcoming committees lie so well about: the horror of that final wait, though the horror is not unmitigated. As Lotta Bainbridge tells May Davenport, “We’ve fallen on evil days, May, and there’s no sense making them more evil than they need to be.” She and her house-mates make sure of it.
Go see how. You’ll be grateful to them, and to the Playhouse, still.
Noel Coward’s “Waiting in the Wings”
Directed by Bruce Heighley
Stage Manager: Sharon Stoll
Assistant Stage Manager: Chris Nestor
Lead Production Assistant: Monica Toner
Soundscape Design: Steven Smith & Ernest Howell
Light Design: Jack Neiberlein
Costumes: Nancy E. Howell
Props Mistress: Diane Kay
Run Crew: Rita Sua Cobretta, Diane Kay, Chris Nestor
Set design and construction: Jack Wilbern, Rob Long, Jerry Sweeney
Hair & Makeup: Teri Paxia
Set Build Crew: Lori Stamatis, Bruce Popielarski, Diane Kay, Rita Sua Cobretta, Monica Toner, Bruce Heighley, Sharon Stoll, Chris Nestor
Produced by special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc.
Nancy Howell as Bonita Belgrave
Dorothy Monahan as Cora Clarke
Sally Jackson-Shevlin as Maud Melrose
Anji Brazell as May Davenport
Lori Stamatis as Almina Clare
Eleanor Coyne as Estelle Craven
Pauline Rodick as Deidre O’ Malley
Bruce Popielarski as Perry Lascoe
Carrie Von Tol Sylvia as Archibald
Jimmy Rogers as Osgood Meeker
Kathy Thompson as Lotta Bainbridge
Chris Noelle Nestor as Dora
Tabitha Morales as Doreen
Monica Toner as Sarita Myrtle
Violet Anne Stoll as Zelda Fenwick
Diane Kay as Dr. Jevons
Terrence Van Auken as Alan Benett
Rita Sua Cobretta as Topsy Baskerville