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Behind the Scenes

Play offers poignant, wry look at aging

Cast members for “The Waverly Gallery” (standing, from left): John Marzelli, Christopher  Cartier, Jane Cartier, and Ken Carberry; seated is Susan Wing Markson.

Cast members for “The Waverly Gallery” (standing, from left): John Marzelli, Christopher Cartier, Jane Cartier, and Ken Carberry; seated is Susan Wing Markson.

“The Waverly Gallery” centers on Gladys, a ’60s-style activist now in her late 80s, who created a gallery in Greenwich Village to help young artists and is now suffering from the impairments of old age.

“It’s a dark comedy, but you bust out laughing,” said Peg Holzemer, who founded Middleborough’s Theatre One Productions, a nonprofit community theater, back in the 1980s and is now the theater’s artistic director in its current home in the Alley Theatre.

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Their new show is “a memory play” based on playwright Kenneth Lonergan’s experiences with his grandmother and mother. Suffering the onset of Alzheimer’s and losing her hearing, Gladys grows confused and fearful.

“Then something comes out of the blue and knocks you out,” Holzemer said. “That’s what I love about dark comedies. They deal with human nature. Everybody has been touched by this in some way.”

In its heyday, Theatre One Productions mounted 13 shows a year, including children’s productions, until it lost its theater venue. The company went on hiatus, but has come back to life in recent years with a busy schedule of full productions and radio plays in the 100-seat “black box” Alley Theatre, the performing space of the Burt Wood School of Performing Arts. Theatre One has had four productions since its season began in November.

“You really do have to do something constantly so people see that you’re active,” Holzemer said. “If you have a product, you have to get it out there.”

The theater’s season includes radio plays, in which miked actors read from a script and sound effects and other technical prompts are performed on stage. “People feel like they’re in an old radio theater,” Holzemer said. The scripts for radio dramas such as the recent production of “The Maltese Falcon” come from the public domain. Kevin Weston of Avon is the technical director.

The season also includes a new works program called “Slice of Life,” a series of 10-minute plays with the goal of encouraging local talent to write for the theater. One of the plays submitted for the program, called “The Annulment,” is being expanded into a full-length play for a production at the end of May.

Holzemer, an actor with a master’s degree from Emerson, has performed in films including the Boston-bred favorite “The Departed.” She recalled having to repeat a particular line, laced with an expletive, to Matt Damon 50 times, for technical reasons.

She decided to produce “The Waverly Gallery” after picking up a copy of the play in a Cambridge bookstore. She fell in love with the material and thought, “I want to direct this.”

The story revolves around the elderly matriarch of the Green family, a former lawyer and activist, whose art gallery in a small Greenwich Village hotel is about to close. Gladys’s last hurrah is an art show to display the work of a painter and part-time waiter from Lynn.

Critics praised the play for its wit and depth when it ran in New York in 2000. Ben Brantley of The New York Times said the play showed that Lonergan had “one of the keenest ears of any working playwright.”

Susan Wing Markson of Lakeville, who plays Gladys in Theatre One’s production, said the quality of the writing makes it possible to get inside the mental universe of a strong-willed elderly woman who is losing her grasp.

“The dialogue is based on his memory of his grandmother as she phrased things,” Markson said. “That guides you along.”

Other cast members in “The Waverly Gallery” include Jane Cartier of West Bridgewater as Gladys’s increasingly worried daughter Ellen; John Marzelli of Whitman as the painter; Ken Carberry of Milton as her son-in-law; and Christopher Cartier of West Bridgewater as her grandson Daniel, from whose point of view the poignant memory play is told.

Given the increasing likelihood of facing the “aging issue” in our own families, Holzemer said, the play is “family theater” — not for young children perhaps, but meaningful for all generations from teens to elders.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@
gmail.com
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