Addison — Vicki Caroline Cheatwood’s Manicures and Monuments premiered in 1995 at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary in Dallas, and is now in rehearsal at WaterTower Theatre for a June 8 opening, with previews beginning June 4. Directed by Susan Sargeant, award-winning founder and artistic director of WingSpan Theatre Company, the play focuses on a naive young manicurist named Janann and her friendship with the cynical elderly Bailey, a retired army nurse waiting for the end in a nursing home in a small Oklahoma town. Praised as much for its humor as its surprising optimism of spirit, the play is above all a slice of generational life that people of all ages recognize. We talked with the playwright, the director and actors Mikaela Krantz and Pam Dougherty about the sources of their work, and how they “keep it real” when being somebody else onstage.
TheaterJones: Vicki, How does your real-life experience relate to Manicures and Monuments?
Vicki Caroline Cheatwood: My grandmother was in a family-run nursing home for the last 18 months of her life in Lexington, Okla. Many of the experiences in the play derive from that. I wrote it when I was in my late 20s. In 1991, my grandmother passed away, but I did get a chance to tell her I’d just gotten engaged. She was not the Bailey character in the play. A lot of Bailey is from my great aunt, a feisty and independent old bird who had been married twice and always right up in your business. My grandmother was gentle and quiet; she doesn’t really appear in the play. My dad was a master sergeant and a war veteran, and there’s something of him in the play.
As far as realism goes, I have always been the writer fascinated by minutia and detail. From the time I was a little kid I was good at mimicry, and I think that really does transfer into my writing, as well. It’s a good gift as a writer, but I get so distracted by the possibilities of what could happen. I have to tell myself, you’re rabbit-trailing again, Vicki.
Manicures and Monuments has eight characters, mostly older patients. Even more than their problem with the big cast size, most modern theater producers are so age-conscious. Theaters don’t want plays with so many old characters. My husband and I produced the original show in 1995 after the play was turned down so many times. The play was a critical and word-of mouth success, and on closing night, we were hoping some other theater would pick it up. It was produced at Journeyman Theatre in Washington, D.C. in 2006, and then my high school teacher in Lawton, Okla. staged a production.
I come from a big family. Having so many people so present in my life has made me the writer I am. I have 26 first cousins on my mother's side, and on my dad’s side a bunch more cousins and aunts and uncles. When I was a little girl, we all gathered at my grandparents’ farm in Wanette, Okla. and told stories in the evening under the shade trees. I guess storytelling runs in my veins.
Susan [director Susan Sargeant] is also a stickler for detail, and we both get our jollies off the research and history of doing theater.
How do you approach a work, emotionally and physically, to make it as realistic as possible?
Susan Sargeant: First of all, the truth always comes from what’s on the page. It doesn’t matter if it’s labeled realism or surrealism. I saw Manicures and Monuments in its original production, and I know Vicki well. She’s from Lawton and I’ve lived there a couple of times, so I understand the background sensibility. The play is masterfully balanced, moving very quickly from laughter to tears. It’s very cathartic and I like that.
As a director I try to get the text and the action to fit whatever space we’re given. WaterTower’s stage is very different from the intimate space at the MAC. I know what it’s like to transfer a play from one scale venue to another. You can do it, if you keep true to the text.
I’m an old school person. I like both visual and audio elements. I have a wonderfully creative design team. Clare DeVries has done umpteen million sets in there and she knows what to do to help. The larger space lets us to put in a front door, unlike a black box where you have only the interior. More options here, and I love that. I always ask how many entrances and exits we have. In this play, we have wheelchairs and walkers, but it doesn’t mean they’re stagnant. Even the little manicurist’s chair has castors on it. I like to keep the eye moving. My husband Lowell is doing the sound design, and we share the same sensibility on this. I’ve worked many times with Barbara Cox, the costume designer, and she’s terrific. The timeline of the play dictates the early 90s; there’s a reference to 1989. So there’s an old TV, but no cell phones.
The heart of the play is the relationship between Bailey and Janann, and as a mature reader, the play resonates for me on a different level than it did when I first saw it. My mother is 80 and I have a new sensibility in the way I perceive the elderly, from the particular rung of the human ladder I’m on now. It’s been very interesting to have come to the play at this time. Vicki’s lines are hilarious—and so true. I’ve learned how precise and concise her use of words is, how perfectly selected each word is. Vicki is brave enough to put that honest voice on the stage. It is her voice, Vicki Cheatwood’s voice. We don’t have another one like it.
How do you make a role real for the audience?
Mikaela Krantz: In Annie Baker’s The Flick [which she was in at Undermain Theatre earlier this year] there’s a multifaceted realism to the people. Their language is colloquial and surprising. Vicki’s characters are the same way. I’ve found a lot of myself in Janann, especially in her relationship with her father. She’s looking around for another heroic figure and discovers even those figures are human. I’m almost 27 and I’ve interacted with many lifestyles. My father’s family was from a farm in Oregon and I know how big families interact with each other, and that helps me.
The play covers Janann’s life from 17 in the beginning to 21, from a teenager to a young woman. I don’t share all Janann’s experiences, but there is something universal about her struggle to find a way to fulfill herself. Because of all the things that just happen to her, she’s having to grow up really fast. I take lot of the role from my own personal life. I’ve been disillusioned with my own father figures. Amazingly, some of the things she says are the same things I’ve said.
I am very aware of the physical stuff Janann has to go through, all the intense life changes. I start with thinking how to carry myself, how to be in her body. In the beginning, she’s taken on this vocation of manicurist, and all her energy, her focus, is coming from the heart. She’s constantly striving, striving, striving, and that shows. Janann’s bouncier in the beginning, especially compared to the elderly patients in the home. As life hands her the next layer, she carries the weight of the burden, and that bears down on her, her posture, and her voice.
Susan [Sargeant] has researched everything mentioned in the play. What does Mount Rushmore look like? Any proper nouns? We know all about the Mona Lisa, and facts about the Vietnam War. I continue to watch and actively listen to what my fellow actors say. It’s revealing. One night it will hit me when I hear the same line that something is different. It’s like hearing a song or a poem; the words begin to resonate in new ways.
How are you making the role of this elderly nurse real for yourself and the audience?
Pam Dougherty: The challenge for me in this one is that Bailey is so brittle she runs the risk of breaking in pieces. That’s an outward thing, the mask that she wears. But inside, she softens as the relationship between her and Janann deepens. Her hardness comes from the history of a rough life, and she latches onto this young girl. In process, she’s also pushing Janann.
Physically, I’m in a wheelchair for most of the show. I’ve never sat in one for more than three moments. In an early rehearsal, I landed in an oversized wheelchair, and I couldn’t manipulate it. It’s like driving a couch around. I am playing a woman whose mind stays while her body goes. For me, personally, this is a much greater emotional and psychological challenge than losing her mind. She’s the only sane one in the nuthouse, and her body is collapsing around her. As Bailey, I’m barely walking, and then I’m in a wheelchair. The strain shows; she almost does crack.
I do a lot of audio work, for both books and animated films, so I don’t find working from a wheelchair that difficult. As a voice actor, I’ve learned to act without my body. It all works together; this character has palsy, and even a tremor can be combined with the voice to give it an edge. In this particular show, I am having to work a little harder because of the palsy. I’ve got to find a subtle way to incorporate the tremor so it’s believable, but not a distraction. The palsy is an age thing. Her body is deteriorating, but that doesn’t define her character. I have to find a way to do that—and without forgetting my lines!