It's not unusual for a theater company to build a season around a unifying theme. Leave it to Act Inc., a group with a fondness for older scripts that other companies have long since retired, to select a summer season in which both plays are set in retirement homes. Think that sounds dull? Think again.
Any mention of birthdays is strictly forbidden in the charity home for retired actresses on which we are eavesdroppers in Noël Coward's Waiting in the Wings, yet it should be noted that Coward's poignant tribute to this happy breed of troupers is now 49 years old. First staged in 1960, it debuted in an era when the well-made play was already out of vogue. Puzzling new works by Harold Pinter and Eugène Ionesco were all the rage; a sentimental three-act story with a beginning, middle and end seemed quaintly old hat. And Waiting in the Wings — with its cost-prohibitive cast of eighteen actors — was soon forgotten.
But you know the adage: Everything old is new again, and the old gals who are living out the third act of their lives provide an evening that feels as fresh as a newly opened box of mothballs. Granted, there's nothing earth shattering here. (Will the ladies get their glassed-in solarium?) But the air is redolent with remembrances of performances past.
Here reunited are Dorothy Davis, Suzanne Greenwald and Eleanor Mullin, who worked so amusingly together as kvetching sisters in West End's The Prisoner of Second Avenue. Here is Sally Eaton, hilarious in Stray Dog's Regrets Only. Here, Diane Peterson, once a stirring Amanda in Stray Dog's The Glass Menagerie. And Teresa Doggett, memorable as the Italian maid in Act Inc.'s Enchanted April. So it goes: As the characters onstage relive their memories, we in the appreciative audience are allowed to relive ours. Then, under the appreciative direction of Steve Callahan, Coward's evocation of those who "cannot go on playing ingénues forever" finds its reason for being in the solid work of Liz Hopefl, who is remarkably moving and credible as the newest inductee at the home. "We are still actresses in our hearts," she says. And in ours, too. Waiting in the Wings joins Drama at Inish and Noises Off as yet another of Act Inc.'s felicitous soirees about the theater life.
Heroes, by French dramatist Gerald Sibleyras (and translated by the ubiquitous Tom Stoppard), is set on the terrace of a country home for veterans of the Great War. (The background is filled with three panels of Van Gogh-inspired fields.) Henri (Kevin Beyer) has lived here for 25 years; Phillippe (David Gibbs), who carries a piece of shrapnel in his head, has been here a decade. Gustave (Richard Lewis) is the newcomer. He arrived only six months ago, and has not yet adjusted to this sedentary life. It's Gustave who initiates one last campaign, a preposterous escape to Indochina.
When they're not planning the great escape or meddling with fire hoses, our three musketeers ramble on about topics as varied as women, cycling, the lifelike qualities of a stone dog that sits on the patio, what music should be played at their funerals, the criminality of a certain Sister Madeleine who might be systematically killing off the vets — and did I mention women? Suffice to say: All is not quiet on this Western front. The air is frequently punctuated with laughter, and most of it is ours.
"If there's one thing we're not short of, it's time," Henri says. Yet as directed by Rob Grumich, the pace never lags. In contrast to Waiting in the Wings, which is a very full evening indeed, the showy Heroes plays out in an intermission-free 90 minutes. Yet both plays, in their own ways, charm. Regardless of whether it's Suzanne Greenwald as a decrepit actress navigating her arduous way into a corner chair in Wings or Kevin Beyer resting his game leg on his cane in Heroes, gentle pleasures abound.