[feature image caption: Ellen Parker, Franchelle Stewart Dorn, Polly Draper and Kathryn Grody ponder 20th Century Blues. Photos: Joan Marcus.]
[Original published in The Clyde Fitch Report, November 27, 2017.]
I wanted more depth from Susan Miller’s new play 20th Century Blues, about the long-term friendships among four 60-something women, currently running at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The play’s structure and themes suggest two other plays: Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still, about the wartime and civilian life of a female war photographer set in her loft apartment in NYC, and Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heidi Chronicles. Not only doesn’t the play achieve the promise of its evocative frame, but playwright Miller and director Emily Mann pace the storytelling with the deliberate pause-and-reflect rhythm of a daytime serial, skirting around the edges of these women’s lives.
There are three playing areas as designed by Beowulf Boritt and lit by Jeff Croiter: an exhibition stage, a nursing home hallway, and a three-dimensional workspace that is home to Danny (lithe and lovely Polly Draper), the photographer protagonist, where we spend most of the play. She welcomes us by narrating a brief slide show of her photo-realistic images (think Art Shay Chicago street scenes or Diane Arbus’ neighborhood freaks), and alludes to a four-decade photo series that she couldn’t be included in her retrospective. The rest of the play is dedicated to describing and contextualizing this thwarted project and the lives of her friends involved in it. For Miller, though, it is little but a plot device.
20th Century Blues is more a calibrated pastiche than a decisively constructed dramatic ride. There is little suspense, scarcely a story to unfold. We’re left with the charm of the characters to entertain us: the aforementioned Danny; elegant real estate agent Sil (Ellen Parker); calm, wise professor Mac (Franchelle Stewart Dorn); quirky veterinarian Gabby (Kathryn Grody). These old friends tell stories of the “remember when” variety, including multiple revelations that seem unbelievable. (How could this group of friends not know that two of them had an affair years ago?) There is, however, one new question before them: Will Danny’s friends sign releases let her publish photographs of them? It’s a plot point that elicits real resistance from some in the group, but on the whole Miller leaves it not well analyzed.
The playwright also throws in Danny’s charming, wheelchair-bound mother, Bess (Beth Dixon), for an aging-parent plotline, and also an adoptive gay son, Simon (Charles Socarides), covering the other end of the caring-at-any-age spectrum. Bess and Simon add both extraneous and lovely moments to the play. One of my favorites takes place in Bess’ nursing home before a wainscoted wall. Danny kneels at the side of her mother’s wheelchair to meet her eye to eye and heart to heart, crafting a simple and heartbreaking tableau.
Certainly, each of Miller’s characters have hidden dimensions they could reveal. Sil is so cash poor that she squats in one of her fancy listings; Mac considers retirement and that one nice dalliance with Danny; Gabby changes the subject when past brushes with breast cancer come up. Rarely, though, do we feel along with these women. (Do watch for a monologue that is delivered by Parker’s Sil, however, which is stunning.) The stakes and life events are very present, but the mode Miller relies on is sequential monologues, not crafted dialogue to take us along on paths of discovery. What a shame, for these women know of feminism and they know of protest. “It was the 70s; you weren’t anyone until you spent a night in jail,” one character recalls. These women know sexuality, too, and marriages and divorces, and decisions about child bearing. But it’s watching characters report, not relate.
“You’re my timetable of history,” Gabby says of the annual photos taken of the group, calling them a “memorial to better living” and embodying a much-telegraphed final plot point. It will bring a smile to your face, but no great depth of inner feeling.
Lover of ghost lights, movies, stories of creative lives, magic of live performance, storytelling in song.
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