Howe’s plays are great windows into the various stages of life. Young adulthood and its need for recognition shape Painting Churches, her 1983 breakout play about a 20-something artist and her desire for parental approval; Birth and After Birth looks at the strains of motherhood and Approaching Zanzibar deals with the challenges of mid-life, such as menopause and the approaching death of a family member.
In Chasing Manet, directed by Michael Wilson, Howe takes on the final stage, old age. Catherine Sargent (Jane Alexander, in photo right), a noted painter from a prominent Boston WASP family, and Rennie Waltzer, (Lynn Cohen, left), a bubbly Jewish woman with an adoring, involved family, end up sharing a room at the Mount Airy Nursing Home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Watching this unlikely pair evolve into a sisterhood of conspiracy is a treat.
Rennie’s able to keep her cheery spirit because her confused mind allows her to have conversations with her dead husband as if he were in the room, and she doesn’t see herself in a nursing home -- she thinks she’s in the Mt. Airy Four Star Hotel. Upon arrival, when she hears the bing-bong bells that summon a nurse, she smiles happily and says, “Room service.” Catherine’s mind, on the other hand, is sharp and she resents her son, Royal (Jack Gilpin), for placing her in a nursing home, even though being legally blind she is unable to live alone. Unlike Rennie’s loving relationship with her family, Catherine’s with Royal, an English professor, is bitter. When, on one of his rare visits, Royal tells Rennie’s guests that he is writing a book about Yeats, Catherine says sarcastically, “Still?”
In her all-powering desire to escape from the confines of the home, but with little vision to guide her, Catherine elicits Rennie’s help, even though Rennie needs a wheelchair. Catherine will push and Rennie will guide, a perfect plan only to the desperate, which Catherine is. She books them passage on the QE II and they plot their escape to Paris, “the blind leading the lame,” Catherine's spirit lightened with the thought of seeing Manet’s painting Dejeuner sur l’Herbe once again at the Louvre. (She has a copy hanging over her bed.)
One of the funniest scenes has the two going through their considerable combined stock of medicines deciding what to take. Catherine can’t read the labels and Rennie, with her perpetual confusion, isn’t sure what anything is. Their deciding factor is how “serious” the pills sound when they shake the bottles. Then Rennie’s mind becomes momentarily crystal clear as she thinks about the one pill she must have. “Stool softener,” she says and both ladies rush for their night stands to grab their bottles. Together they shake them while gleefully singing a little song about there being no softener like stool softener to the tune of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” It’s hysterical, and a classic Howe moment.
Alexander plays Catherine just right, capturing her haughtiness and anger, but allowing her free-spirited side to emerge naturally in time, and Cohen is the perfect foil. Julie Halston is hilarious as a senile patient with a salty tongue, a role she quickly, and frequently, exchanges for that of Rennie’s daughter. Rounding out the cast are Vanessa Aspillaga, David Margulies and Rob Riley. Tony Straiges’s sets, David C. Wollard’s costumes and Howell Binkley’s lighting work beautifully together to bring this world to life.
The delicious ending, which I won’t spoil for you, is pure Howe. She knows how to send her audiences out with their hearts high, which you know if you’ve seen The Art of Dining, Painting Churches and Approaching Zanzibar. When I interviewed Howe in 1990 for my second masters thesis, which was on her work, I asked her about her mastery of dynamic closings. They are a major focus of her work and, she said, usually surprise her as much as her audience. “The ending is everything to me,” she said. “To me the whole point of writing a play is to sculpt that shock, that visual shock. I think that’s my strongest suit in a way. Often the ending is what comes last, but I just know it has to be an epiphany. I do struggle long and hard to try to come up with something strong.”
Well, Tina, you did it again. Thank you for another wonderful evening of theatre, and please don’t make us wait so long the next time.
Chasing Manet, a Primary Stages production, runs through May 2 at 59E59 Theaters (located at 59 E. 59th St., between Park and Madison Avenues). Tickets are available at the box office, by calling (212) 279-4200 and online at www.ticketcentral.com. For more information visit primarystages.com.