By Lucy Komisar
Tina Howe’s bittersweet look at a tough, smart, legally blind and aging painter railing at the indignities of being warehoused in a Riverdale nursing home is sensitive and often funny. Jane Alexander shines as the painter, Catherine Sargent, who feels suffocated, blocked from her past life and surrounded by people who’ve gone senile.
Above her bed is a print of Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, the ‰douard Manet painting of a nude women having a picnic with two fully clothed men. Sargent explains to the family of her new roommate, the spirited but slightly dotty Rennie Waltzer (Lynn Cohen), that putting a naked woman in public place in 1863 sounded a call for artistic freedom and paved the way for modern art.
She had been a prominent painter in her day and still burns for
freedom. I want out! she declares to anyone who will listen. They include her son, Royal (Jack Gilpin), who teaches poetry at Columbia University but disappoints her. He lacks her creativity, quotes Yates instead of finishing his book about him, and seems stuck in a rut.
Catherine asserts her own biting, uncompromising self by such devices as dressing up in a bloody mask while pretending to be Oedipus at a social worker’s activity.
So how will she deal with the lot she’s been dealt? The deux ex machina turns out to be Rennie, who Catherine inveigles into a scheme to accompany her onto the QE2 and from there to Paris. The grand escape is made problematical by the fact that Rennie is frail in both body and mind: she uses a walker and imagines that her late husband Hershel is still around.
The cast is uniformly excellent, with Cohen giving a charm and humanity to Rennie, and the others – including Julie Halston, David Margulies, Vanessa Aspillaga and Robert Christopher Riley — handling multiple roles that range from the members of Rennie’s family to the residents and caretakers of the home.
Halston moves amazingly between a very mentally disturbed patient and Rennie’s lively daughter, the rock of the family. Director Michael Wilson treats even the oddest balls with sympathy. Margulies as the very senile Henry suddenly fantasizes – or recalls — an archeological expedition in the Tigris-Euphrates where he saw pterodactyls fly. He’s telling us that people whose minds or bodies may have disintegrated may have had glorious lives – and they want out to recapture them.
Chasing Manet. Written by Tina Howe, Directed by Michael Wilson. Primary Stages, 59E59, at 59 East 59th Street, New York City. 212-279-4200. Opened April 9, 2009, Closes May 2, 2009. Reviewed by Lucy Komisar April 9, 2009. http://www.primarystages.org/.