Monday, February 20, 2012

Theatre review: "Elder Hostages" at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre

Four excellent actors make the latest Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company production vital and alive. They perform Elder Hostages, two hours’ worth of worthy one-act plays by Ray Werner.

The title of the collection and the program cover art suggest something violent and dangerous, but actually the seven characters may be more considered hostages to the perils of aging. Werner looks at these people with humor, compassion and imagination.

Certainly, those of us who’ve been around so long that we’d never be asked for IDs for cigarettes, cigars, beer, wine, vodka and scotch might not want to be reminded that the storage space drawers in our brains may need oiling, that our eyes and ears need help processing sights and sounds and that the flesh below may be getting weaker. And there have already been, over the decades, plenty of movies, plays and TV shows delving into such subjects, so much so that you might think there’s nothing new in explorations of the old.

I ramble. Forgive me.

In any case, Werner has found new territory. The plays occur in three different parts of Pittsburgh. And he hails from here. But the tales told in small spaces could take place anywhere.

I found Night Song the most moving of the three due to Susan McGregor-Laine. She encapsulates Sally, deep in the mists of Alzheimer’s. Sally’s husband Tim dearly loves her but their solitary life has become so much of a burden for them both that he plans for them to go swiftly into that good night. McGregor-Laine’s Sally feels and looks beautiful and sweet every living moment. No wonder Tim cherishes her.

The third play, Wandering Angus, emerges as the most original due to the character of Angus. A vigorous walker-walker he carries bags with all sorts of unusual items, offering perceptive, provocative, off-center comments, while suggesting that he may have magic powers. He encounters Jack and Betsy, strangers to each other but who, in common, are dependant on portable oxygen. Here director Marci Woodruff has done wonders with the cast, making sure that David Crawford as Angus not overplay but rather seem rational to himself. not pushing for wild comedy. He does that well. Meanwhile Stevie Akers as Betsy brims with energy and feistiness without ever becoming cliché-like.

Werner preceded both of those one-acts with Mum’s The Word , an inventive contrast to Night Song' s Alzheimer focus. Two Irish-sounding, elderly, not very interesting brothers treasure excellently functioning long-term memories, challenging each other to remember and recite passages from famed and not so famed books. They also reminisce about their parents in younger days. This never goes much beyond blather. And, as an opener, it may not grab some people in the audience who could mistakenly opt not to stay and depart during the first intermission. That would be too bad; what follows justifies the visit.

Roger Jerome appears in all the plays, capably versatile, always convincing.

Among good touches: Sound designer Mark Whitehead's choices of a recording by Sarah Vaughan of September Song to precede Night Song (“…and the days dwindle down to a precious few…”) and The Beatles’ When I’m 64 setting up Wandering Angus. Stir your memory: the Liverpool lads laid down those tracks around 45 years ago when 64 was considered ancient. Now many of us can look forward or back to those years as leaving plenty of time to do wonderful things in good health with minds, bodies and hearts full of vitality.

This production brims with life no matter what age the actors are. They and Marci Woodruff make it all real.

Elder Hostages continues through February 26th at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 937 Liberty Ave. Downtown., 412/377-7803 or

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