Jewel Theatre’s “Complications From a Fall”

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Audrey Rumsby, Nada Rowand and Mike Ryan; photo by Steve Barto

By Philip Pearce

ADVANCES IN MEDICINE mean most people live longer than they used to and that has turned a lot of their offspring, like it or not, into a generation of caregivers. The care and feeding of the aging American parent is the stuff of raw satire in works like Albee’s The American Dream, and is served up as serious clinical drama in movies like Away from Her. Kate Hawley’s Complications From a Fall, now having its world premiere at Jewel Theatre in Santa Cruz, confronts this widespread problem somewhere between those two dramatic extremes.

I suspect that much of the steady laughter from an opening night audience that included a lot of fifty-somethings was the laughter of recognition. They knew from experience what director Paul Whitworth and a skilled quartet of players were talking about. Hawley has a blithe touch and her script acknowledges that, for all its challenges and pitfalls, looking after an aging and failing parent has moments of wry comedy. Yet for all its brisk and funny dialogue the play doesn’t skirt the pathos or terrors or uncertainties of that job.

Amiable but feckless Teddy arrives a day late to relieve his stressed and nit-picking sister Helen in taking care of their ailing eighty-year-old mother Elizabeth. Helen is off to deliver a professionally crucial address about Ibsen at a high-powered academic conference in Denver. She bombards her tardy brother with last-minute bedside instructions, dire warnings of possible problems and elaborate emergency procedures. Her anxiety is all the worse in that Elizabeth has recently been injured in a fall and her well-loved professional caregiver Lucy has quit when Helen implied she may have been stealing pieces of Elizabeth’s jewelry.

The long weekend with his mom carries the willing but guilt-ridden Teddy through a series of geriatric catastrophes which teach him more than he’d bargained for about himself, about the reality of Helen’s struggles as a caregiver, and a startling fact about his relationship with his mother.

The cast is brisk, energetic and excellent. As Helen, Julie James sets the pace with the powerful picture of a woman frantically caught between anxiety for her mother’s welfare and a self-absorbed determination to propel her own academic prospects at any cost. Funny and defensive, Mike Ryan’s Teddy blusters apologetically but clearly isn’t going to win many rounds against the raging Helen. It’s a joy to watch both of these characters gradually become different people by the time Helen returns from Denver, but how that happens you’ll only learn if you see the show.

Central to all the conflicts is Nada Rowand, a delightful veteran of the Broadway theater, who gets Elizabeth just right: often as not vague and demented, the old lady all the same is no pathetic victim. Whatever period of her life she’s living in, Elizabeth knows what she wants and finds bizarre and startling ways of getting it. It’s a charming performance that makes it clear that whatever weird stratagems she cooks up this woman is well worth the trouble it takes to keep her operating.

Fourth member of the party is the doughty and resourceful Audrey Rumsby, who, as Lucy, responds lovingly to a cry for help from the harried Teddy, never mind that she’s previously stalked out under a cloud called Helen. Teddy comes to appreciate more than Lucy’s care-giver skills.

Hawley’s script avoids many of the clichéd attitudes and decisions that lurk around the caregiver genre. I was particularly delighted to learn about the inner lives of two of the characters through a couple of unexpected show-stopping dream sequences, performed with hilarious precision, the first by Rumsby the next by James. By and large, the fits and starts and explosions of the weekend are fun but, in fact, they’re not the main point. Where most care-taker stories focus on decisions about the future of the aging loved one, Complications turns out to be more about surprise revelations from the loved one’s past. Elizabeth joins joyously in World War Two dance tunes sung at her bedside and Norman Kern’s sound-design carries the nostalgia forward with some bouncy Ellington and Glenn Miller entre-act music.

Lucy and Helen differ on how you respond when your patient jumps back a generation and decides you are a long-dead family member or friend from the distant past. Helen’s policy is always to correct the error, drawing her mother firmly forward into the present. Teddy, to begin with, follows her example. Lucy however plays along with any passing delusion. It’s a treat to watch Rumsby and Rowand exchanging 1940s girl gossip as Lucy enters effortlessly into the person of Elizabeth’s one-time and well-loved college roommate. It’s a significant difference in strategy. Teddy only learns the central fact that gives the play’s title an added significance when he willingly takes on the role of a figure from his mother’s past life as a refugee from the London blitz.

It’s a pleasing script and a slick production. Paul Whitworth’s direction aims for fast pace and clarity, with special skill in the sometimes quick transitions from what’s funny to what isn’t. If I have any reservations about the show, they are few and minor. The story having been launched with a fall, I wondered whether having Elizabeth fall down a second time during Teddy’s watch doesn’t—well, fall a bit flat dramatically.

And it’s odd that none of three healthy, heterosexual central characters in their forties has acquired any children. Hawley apparently doesn’t want to deal with that additional generation gap, but it’s a bit of a stretch justifying all that childlessness.

What matters is that, at a time when so many local theaters recycle old cash-cow crowd-pleasers, Complications From a Fall adds excitingly to a Jewel Theatre policy of introducing fresh and relevant new work to the Monterey Bay area. It continues weekends through May 17th.