|Marc J. Franklin
Still: basic and straightforward are not necessarily bad or amateur, and in this case both work exceptionally well. Lonergan's play doesn't need to dig all that deep to resonate, after all: dementia affects a lot of people, which is why plays, films, tv shows and books about it prevail in popular culture. An awful lot of such stories, in fact, aren't nearly as effective as this comparatively low-key one. The strong acting, of course, helps a lot: Hedges is blunt but never stiff or self-conscious, whether interacting with other characters or during his confessional curtain-speeches, wherein he admits how difficult it is for him to spend time with Gladys, even as he clearly adores her. The same goes for the rest of the cast: Joan Allen and David Cromer play Gladys's daughter and son-in-law; both are believably caring, kind, boneheaded, and impatient with Gladys in equal doses. Michael Cera rounds out the cast as Don, the last artist to display his works at Gladys's small gallery. A kind and well-meaning drifter whose life hasn't worked out especially well, Don is the sole denialist of the bunch in insisting that Gladys's memory lapses are entirely the fault of what he assumes are sub-par hearing aids. His opinions, however, don't get in the way of his loyalty to Gladys or his willingness to help her and her family as she declines.
At the center is Gladys, played downright majestically by May who, much like the production she anchors, never forces anything, even though it would be incredibly easy to. It's so much more typical to play aging, addled characters in bellowing, raging, do-not-go-gentle fashion--or as one-dimensional punchlines. But May's portrayal is solidly dignified, and all the more remarkable since Gladys is a fairly big personality to begin with: she's as endlessly chatty, headstrong, opinionated and irritating as she is bighearted and smart and endearing. Aided with small, gradual changes to her appearance--a graying wig here, an alarmingly roomy dress there--her Gladys starts to diminish in ways that feel no less sad or unfair, but are a whole lot more convincing for the actor's excellent choices: favorite expressions start getting repeated ad-nauseum like so many tics; remembering the right words or finding the house keys becomes harder; recognizing dear friends and close relatives grows frustratingly challenging. May never lets Gladys become a caricature or cruel joke, even as she becomes less coherent or independent.
There may be nothing remarkable about aging, or even about losing your memory as you do. But of course, something as commonplace as decline can still pack a punch. This quiet, lovely production of The Waverly Gallery is all the stronger and more resonant for never once forgetting that.