THEATRE ‌ Death Be Not Proud 

Strong acting barely salvages a clichéd, predictable, overly sentimental Grace and Glorie

click to enlarge Jackie Roberts and Samille Basler make the best of a formulaic script
  • Jackie Roberts and Samille Basler make the best of a formulaic script
Grace and Glorie
Village Repertory Company
Running through March 18
The Village Playhouse
730 Coleman Blvd. Mt. pleasant

Grace is a 90-year-old woman with terminal cancer who has defied her doctor’s orders and gone home to her cottage in the Virginia mountains to die among her beloved apple trees. Gloria (whom Grace starts calling Glorie after an old hymn) is a New York transplant hospice worker sent to help Grace through her final days.

You can guess where the story goes. Two seemingly opposite characters, with their diametric belief systems, life experiences, and values, have more in common than it seems and end up learning important things from each other. If you feel the insuppressible urge to yawn right now, your instinct is just about right. The "lessons" in this overt message play are obvious in the most painfully tedious, pat ways.

It's the excellent acting and direction that saves this Village Playhouse production, but just barely. Samille Basler plays the clichéd Grace with as much restrained dignity as is possible, bringing more humanity to the role than playwright Tom Ziegler provides in his script. Jackie Roberts turns in a convincing performance as Glorie, an equally simply-drawn role. Even though director Keely Enright handles the ambling pace of Grace's Virginia environment and her dwindling life deftly, with a lot of surprising mobility and energy, we still find ourselves wishing the woman would hurry up and die already.

Ziegler's thin script (which feels much older than its 1990 workshop premiere — it was turned into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie of the week in 1998, if that tells you anything) reads like an amateurish playwriting manual. Steeped in formula and predictability, Grace and Glorie trudges on, fueled by a lot of heart, but not much else, all of it drenched in sentimentality.

Ziegler's stock characters will have many audience members cringing: Gloria is a high-powered young New York businesswoman, book-smart but naïve, tough on the exterior but frail inside; Grace is of course the backwoods, country metaphor-spouting, hardened geriatric who may not have ever left her farm but, in truth, is actually a lot wiser than "educated" city folk.

Much of the ostensible comedy in the script relies heavily on tired "fish out of water" gags. Glorie balks at Grace choosing Velveeta over brie, yelps at the sight of chickens in Grace's yard, and naturally can't figure out the simplest of household devices, what with her high-falutin' "city-bred Yankee" ways. (And what real New Yorker isn't used to seeing mice?) The "you're not from around here, are you?" jokes wear thin pretty quickly, but they go on forever. Just when you think the play's moved past the gimmick, it shows up again.

Gloria, of course, has her own issues and is really the one who needs help. Her father's lack of support, her husband's lack of attention, and the death of her son all haunt her. She buries herself in Grace's life, using her business wiles and her lawyer husband's influences to save Grace from a salivating developer who's bulldozing her property before she's even died. The obligatory scene in which Glorie spills the beans about how her son died is as heart-wrenching as a Saturday Night Live sketch, unfortunately. In spite of the awful lines, Roberts still somehow manages to convey credible emotion with it.

The old but never-ending questions of why are we here, is there a God, is there a plan, are there any answers, is there a possibility of renewal — all are supposed to be emotionally powerful, but the play is crippled by a near absence of punch and depth while overflowing in schmaltzy sentimentality and formula.

Basler makes her concluding tear-jerker of a monologue remarkably touching; yet the moments of tenderness in this production flutter away with each swift return to the milking of the tried-and-true entertainment blueprint.

Of course people have much to learn from the elderly. Of course different kinds of people can learn from each other. Haven't these messages already been driven home in many other, better pieces of work? Life, love, death, acceptance, and grief are universal themes, but Grace and Glorie, for all the good effort given it in this production, takes on these topics with no real substance. It's Velveeta instead of brie.


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