Fort Worth — Little old ladies going toe to toe? It’s a classic for a reason: it makes us laugh. Circle Theatre’s regional premiere of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Ripcord gets plenty of high-flying humor from this reliable Golden-Girls-ish premise, but delivers something unexpected: a comedy that treats its elderly characters as serious (and seriously funny) people, not cartoons.
It’s no great challenge for a playwright to churn out old folks who look small, cute and powerless. Much harder to craft characters who are still in the game, still invested in their world for good or ill. Ripcord’s clever script does it all. We rock with glee at how “big” this tiny war gets, and grin (with respect, ladies) at all the grit, passion and sheer cussedness we find still inside this battling pair.
So here’s the setup:
“Crabby” Abby Binder (brilliantly flinty Lois Sonnier Hart) has managed to run off every one of her roommates at the Bristol Place Senior Living Center in suburban New Jersey.
Until new resident Marilyn Dunne (sugar-and-spicy Deborah Brown)—sweet as pie, friendly as a stray pup—came to stay, parking herself on the other bed in Abby’s private paradise, an upper-floor double room with a park view and oh-so-pleasant light.
Abby can’t get her to leave—and won’t give up the fight.
Wackiness follows, of course. A “little bet” about who goes (or who stays AND gets the bed by the window!) escalates into a series of ever-wilder tricks, pranks and punks. Jokey and warm-hearted caretaker Scotty (Mark Quatch) is pulled into the brawl, as are Marilyn’s devoted (and game for anything) grown children: son Lewis (Clint Gilbert), daughter Colleen (Lindsay Hayward) and husband Derek (Jeff Burleson).
Director Robin Armstrong (Circle’s The Taming, Too Many Cooks, God of Carnage) keeps things alive and sparking even when the ladies are stuck in their room—and knows how to gin up the comic chaos when Lindsay-Abaire sends Marilyn and Abby out on some unlikely “field trips.” (These outings give the supporting cast a chance to shine in some “say what?” roles: Halloween-house monsters, masked muggers, skydiving puppeteers. We can say no more.)
Both Brown and Hart clearly are having a whee of a time biting into the play’s great one-liners and snarky put-downs. Verbally, their characters have reached the stage of life symbolized by the ladies who lunch in bright red hats—they’ll say just about anything.
Hart’s Abby is quick-witted, and about as hard-shelled as an armadillo. If she has a soft spot, we can’t see it…yet. Abby doesn’t give a hoot about the social life of the center—or who she might put out in maintaining her “unofficial single room.” Brown’s Marilyn is instantly endearing, a chirpy and fluttering grandma type. (One of her costumes, also Armstrong’s doing, gives Marilyn sleeves that flap like a bird.) But early hints about her life and background suggest she might not be the pushover of Abby’s dreams.
Clare Floyd DeVries’ simple set design of two angled beds (one tidy, one a sprawling mess) is backed by a wide screen that becomes a collage for pictures spotlighting the play’s “we’re not dead yet” subtext: old people tramping through the city, playing in the park, jumping out of planes. On lights and sound, designers John Leach and David Lambert pull off some neat tricks, whisking us instantly away from Abby and Marilyn’s room and into two very different atmospheres: a play-horror haunted house, and a noisy small plane in flight. The airplane scene connects to the play’s mysterious title—which tells the ladies that life is a “long terrifying free fall…which is why you gotta pull the ripcord, baby! Slow yourself down and look around while you can!”
Playwright Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers was produced at Circle Theatre in 2001. He won the Pulitzer for his play Rabbit Hole, wrote the book and lyrics for Shrek the Musical and the screenplay for Rise of the Guardians, and is, along with playwright Marsha Norman, co-chair of the playwriting program at Juilliard in New York City. In Ripcord, he’s given his playwriting students a lesson on how to make more from less. No settling for a sitcom here; this play has much more interesting things to say and places to go. And it never stops making us laugh—even when it tells us the truth.