Jane Alexander, Vanessa Aspillaga, Lynn Cohen, Jack Gilpin, Julie Halstony, David Margulies, Robert Christopher Riley
The early press for Tina Howe’s Chasing Manet sometimes referred to it as a comedy, sometimes as a drama.
Though both descriptions are fitting, this is not an awkward hybrid of the ‘Dramedy’ variety, rather a piece of writing that is, by turns, funny, touching, joyful, sad and uplifting.
The play is a rather straightforward affair. Stage veterans Jane Alexander and Lynn Cohen play residents of a nursing home.Alexander plays Catherine Sargent, a carefree bohemian, now stuck in a frail and failing body.
Catherine was once a realitvely famous painter, but is now almost blind; she dreams of nothing more than getting out of the home.
The “where” is not important, what matters is the getting away from this prison for the aged and from the son who she is watching shrink before her eyes.
Cohen plays Rennie, a widow with a large and close-knit family. But since the death of her husband, Rennie has lost touch with reality and rarely recognizes her relatives – preferring the imagined company of her deceased spouse.
The two women have responded to their situations in drastically different ways. Catherine, mentally whole but physically restricted, has become frustrated and angry. She has been removed from her home and her friends, and, as a result, has receded into a private bitterness. Rennie, on the other hand, revels in the memories of her husband and enjoys the distractions provided by the other residents and the staff of the nursing home.
The play sensitively addresses their attempts to escape their limitations. It is both a physical escape and spiritual escape that the two women are striving for. Summed up in this manner, Howe’s play sounds like a fairly simple thing, and that’s true, it is – but it is also something more; the writing is subtle and skilled and the two central characters vividly drawn.
It helps that both Alexander and Cohen inhabit their roles perfectly. The other actors, sharing a variety of characters between them, are also excellent.
This play, in lesser hands, could so easily have been too sentimental, played for easy tears or milked for over-the-top comic effect. But these two talented performers ensure that the characters of Rennie and Catherine are grounded, whole, human, and totally believable.
The audience is able to share their joy, angst, fear and wonderment without ever feeling manipulated.
The director, Michael Wilson, paces things well – never rushing his actors; but neither does he let them wallow. Emotions are not just expressed, but shown and shared with the audience in what is a superficially convential but ultimately incredibly rewarding theatrical experience.