Arlington — There is a lot of necessary talk about the importance of new plays in theaters across the country, and yes, it’s been happening more in North Texas, as this site has written much about—and will continue to do so. New work has to be championed.
It happens in the professional theaters and smaller independent groups, but in the world of community theater, it’s not so common. It’s understandable why they have to program family- and box office-friendly shows, but why not trust audiences to consider a new play as worthy of their dollar as seeing On Golden Pond, Steel Magnolias or The Mousetrap for the fourth time in 10 years? Those were all new plays once, after all.
Luckily the American Association of Community Theatre, which is based in Fort Worth, is out to find new works with its NewPlayFest. The goal is to discover scripts for community theater audiences, so for its most recent event, 270 playwrights submitted plays. Of those, seven were chosen to be produced in seven community theaters across the country. Theatre Arlington was selected and is producing the premiere of A.J. DeLauder’s Gracefully Ending, which closes this weekend.
It’s easy to see why this script was chosen. It’s not sophisticated by contemporary playwriting standards, and it needs trimming, but Theatre Arlington’s production, directed by Jim Johnson, makes a case for it to become popular in other community theaters.
The play is based on West Virginia-based DeLauder’s experience of dealing with an elderly grandmother in the throes of dementia, still living in her house even after her husband died, no longer able to make informed decisions. If you’ve ever gone through this, you know how difficult it can be. Nobody wants to their car keys taken away or consider moving to a nursing home where the residents use “bingo as life support,” but these are the facts of life.
The grandmother in the play is Margret (Sherri Britton), whose daughter Beth (Lindsay Hayward) wants to take care of her mother, but also has her own life issues. One of those is the strained relationship with her grown son Andrew (Parker Fitzgerald), who isn’t exactly beloved by Margret, either. Margret’s husband Hank (Dave Harper) died earlier, but appears as a ghost only Margaret can see or hear. That doesn’t help the family’s confidence about her mental health.
DeLauder’s depiction of the mother-daughter tension between Margret and Beth sometimes feels clichéd and facile, but nonetheless rings true. Johnson builds and paces nicely, and DeLauder treats these characters with respect; it’s obvious it comes from personal experience. The playwright hits a few funny one-liners, too (“It’s like Ted Nugent and Bea Arthur got married in here”). The set of Margret’s Appalachian home calls for a few tricky scenes, such as a fall down the stairs and a fire in the kitchen, and set designer Anthony Curtis is up for the task.
Harper and Fitzgerald both offer solid support, and Hayward balances fear and irritation at her own problems with the bigger frustration, and occasional anger, that comes with caring for her mom. Britton has a tough role that requires reaching into some dark places, and she’s not afraid to go there. It’s an unforgettable performance.
Gracefully Ending is framed as a memory play, and as done here, there’s unnecessary sentimentality. But with some trimming and tightening, it’s a script that should have a life on the community theater track. And that’s good for audiences.