Addison — Space is always an important consideration in theater making. The physical space at a venue where a play happens can make or break a show, and it comes close to harming Dallas playwright Vicki Caroline Cheatwood’s 20-year-old Manicures & Monuments at WaterTower Theatre, where the Main Stage swallows up an intimate, character-driven piece.
It’s an odd choice, considering this space is reconfigurable and WTT has successfully staged intimate works on cozier sets than what scenic designer Clare Floyd DeVries gives us for a nursing home in small-town Oklahoma. Not only does it slow down the production because of the time it takes for the residents—who are not young and spry—to cross the stage, but it adds more air than is needed for Cheatwood’s use of another kind of space: what comes between words, sentences and blocks of dialogue.
To be sure, her writing here does require a certain amount of breathing room, as dramatic tension isn’t as important as the inherent drama that comes with humans interacting on a natural, unfussy level. And for that, air is important. But not as much as DeVries and director Susan Sargeant give.
Cheatwood’s biggest influence here seems to be Horton Foote, the Texas playwright who was profoundly influenced by another great dramatist with a knack for complexity in simplicity, Anton Chekhov. I kept thinking of Foote’s The Last of the Thorntons, but perhaps only because of the nursing home setting. Cheatwood’s characters don’t have as much of a sense of urgency—and that’s the way she likes it.
Set in a common area at a nursing home, and over the course of several years, we get to know Lucinda (Pam Dougherty) and the young stylist/nail technician Janann (Mikaela Krantz), who comes to help the residents with their feet—so it’s pedicures, not manicures, seen here. Janann has dreams of making it out of her small town, of seeing famous monuments and landmarks. Instead, babies keep coming. When we first meet her, she’s a teenager pregnant with her first; by play’s end, she has three children.
There are other characters: elderly residents Camille (Elly Lindsay), Mr. Swanson (Chris Messersmith), the ornery Sara (Charlotte White) and Luther (Edward Beal), as well as the mentally disabled Sammy (David Price). Aigner Edgerson plays employee Smitty, who just wants to maintain an honest job. These characters don’t offer much more than color, reminiscent of the satellite characters in John Patrick’s The Curious Savage (which is set in a sanatorium).
In the tradition of writers who create plays about small-town Texans, such as Preston Jones, Cheatwood doles out colorful similes, such as “ugly as handmade soap,” and funny one-liners like “you’re not trash, just young and maybe a little stupid.” And she doesn’t overdo it, which can be an annoying habit with inexperienced playwrights who throw in a bunch of Southern characters whose every bit of dialogue is a country-fried expression.
Cheatwood is a much-loved playwright in these parts, and Sargeant’s cast includes some of the best in a strong local talent pool, notably Dougherty, Lindsay and Krantz. They all find the humanity in their characters, and there are some touching, honest scenes between Dougherty and Krantz. In the end, there’s a sweet and not overly sentimental message about discovering your potential, even if you don’t always meet it for a variety of reasons, not least of which is life, which has a pesky habit of getting in the way.
On second thought, maybe that’s what all that space is for—those dreams have to be stored somewhere.