Fort Worth — “And we’ll run all day, and have a wonderful time.” Nursing home resident Eva (Peggy Bott Kirby) sits happily in her wheelchair, making plans with the stuffed bunny she cuddles day and night. At the end of our lives, is this the dream—the hope of shuffling off aching, ancient flesh, of dancing across grass in the light-footed, light-hearted spirit of childhood?
It’s certainly the most persistently expressed hope among the elderly and disabled people in A Fragile Dance of Elders into the Great Beyond, a new play written and directed by Hip Pocket Theatre guru Johnny Simons—but not the only one. Defiant Roy (Thad Isbell) isn’t going gentle into that good night, if he can help it. “Who has the keys to the Caddy?” he barks, not knowing “where the hell” he is, but hoping to make a break for it.
Quick-tempered Dot (JoAnn Gracey) just wants a hot cup of coffee, and to be left alone. Margo (Kristi Ramos Toler), perpetually “sorry” about every move she makes, keeps any hopes to herself—as does quiet Joan (Debbie Dacus), though she joyfully twirls her chair for a better view of the spirits she sees around her.
Younger patient Toby (Paul Heyduck), limbs wobbling, searches hopefully for his Mom and Dad—but begins to trade glances with Dancy Nancy (Jozy Camp), a young woman similarly unsteady on her feet. Alzheimer’s, vascular dementia, cerebral palsy. The words aren’t hopeful, but somehow this short play is.
In A Fragile Dance, an angelic spirit (Holly Tarkon) and a slender child (River Barley) hover over and around a nursing home where the elderly and disabled are cared for by calm, caring Dr. Wier (Paul Logsdon) and an attentive staff. There’s never any doubt at HPT that with Simons, we’re hearing his very latest musings on thematic threads he’s had us chasing for years, through memories of boyhood and coming of age, of love and loss—and now, in a play dedicated to his wife and HPT co-founder Diane, to thoughts about our last years.
The play’s strongest moments are found in the honest, unsparing portraits of the residents, seen always as human and individual—and allowed to be funny, grumpy, quirky, even a pain in the tush. Conversely, Simons is too simplistic in his portrayal of the staff as a team of “dream” caretakers. Without exception they are loving, gentle, full of patience and good humor, and would you please give me the address of this place? But it’s a nice dream, and a tribute to the many caregivers who do give their hearts and souls to this tough work. (The ensemble includes plenty of HPT talent: Elysia Worcester, Laura L. Jones, Jeff Stanfield and Brian Cook.)
In gently flowing dances, Tarkon moves with grace in and among this mass of humanity, radiating angelic compassion for all—even for Eva’s distraught and none too helpful daughter Sara (Shelby Griffin), who just can’t cope with her mother’s dementia…until, like many of us, she takes hold and learns to give what’s needed.
A Fragile Dance brings beautiful movement, even wheelchair choreography, to a subject that too often seems nothing but grim. Theologians sometimes speak of the grace of a “good death.” They mean spiritual salvation, of course—and also, perhaps, the hope or belief that we’re not on our own, but have angels and spirits around us…and a little child to lead us on.