BWW Review: HUCKLEBERRY TOWERS Addresses the Needs of Seniors to Live Out Their Lives with Friends and Happy Memories
Playwright Stanley Brown directs the world premiere of his play HUCKLEBERRY TOWERS through February 9, 2020, at the ELATE Theatre Company's Lincoln Stegman Theatre in North Hollywood. With a cast of 18, most of whom are seniors who just might be real residents of the retirement home named in the title, this poignant comedy about their so-called golden years speaks to the importance of friendship even when you have trouble remembering their names or hearing conversations around you.
The play begins when siblings Wendy and Tom visit HUCKLEBERRY TOWERS, one of the nicer retirement homes they are considering and must now convince their parents it is the perfect place for them to live. And though they attempt to use logic to attain that goal, behind their reasoning is the costly repairs it would take to renovate their parents' home, money which could be used to pay for them living out their golden years with others their age while their needs will be taken care of by the retirement staff.
In the opening scene, Janet Lee Rodriquez portrays Joy, the by-the-book salesperson who does her best to smile as she sells benefits of living in Huckleberry Towers to both a pair of surly siblings and their parents. She is perfectly cast in the role, and allows us to see that under all her professionalism, there is a person with a heart who truly cares about people. But it is her duty to bring people in so she can continue in her job, which she fears may soon be threatened but cannot share that information with anyone else.
Scene two takes place six months later after their parents Henry and Helen (the perfectly cast Andrew Piecka and Barbara Piecka) have moved in and made themselves at home. Helen prefers to stay in her much-loved adjustable bed watching television, while Henry tends to socialize in the meeting hall/dining room, often to gossip and play board games with the other men living there. Among them are the more "still got it" Charles (Travis) and Nathan (Philip A. Pirio) who fancies himself a poker shark and encourage the men to put their game of Clue up and join him in a few friendly, wagering hands.
But that won't appeal to Russ (Thomas Long) whose modus operandi is to sleep almost every moment he is onstage, which generated lots of laughter when others asked him questions and answered for him. But Nathan's suggestion of a "real" game of poker certainly appeals to Doris (Marty McCambridge), one of the several single women living in HUCKLEBERRY TOWERS, who winds up taking Nathan for all he is worth!
Certainly Wendy (Robert Fasco-Locke) is in favor of moving her parents there since her first priority is her business, choosing to take several calls from her assistant during the family's visit to the Towers. Her brother Tom (Raziel Fritz) is more interested in the money that will be generated by the sale of the house, taking any responsibility on his own shoulders for caring for his elderly parents. And he knows better than to think his sister is up to that challenge either. Tom has even lined up a buyer for the property, but cannot tell his parents the plan is to tear down the house and rebuild on the site.
When gruff Nurse Lindsay (Bev Bailey, who seems to be channeling Nurse Rachet) interrupts their game to announce a guest speaker (Claudia, portrayed by Sara Locke) is planned for the evening to talk about the sex life of seniors, the women residents seem much more interested in the topic than the men. Several jokes about the lack of male virility in the place upset some of the men, which others just agree. Among the most interested at the meeting are poker-playing Doris, Louise with the peanut oil smelling hair (Judith Miller) who winds up "hooking up" (holding hands, at least) with Charles during a meeting demonstration, well-dressed and classy Sadie (Betty Kane), and Maureen (Gyl Roland), perhaps on the verge of dementia who changes her costume to one from a different country, believing each meeting is about cooking styles from around the world. And as different as these women are, it's very apparent they have known each other awhile and consider themselves more like sisters than friends.
Act Two begins a month later when Joy announces a guest speaker will soon be addressing the residents, something feared by Ann (Marilyn Lazik, whose energy enhanced the believability of her angry outbursts) and her husband Michael, as well as Betty (Barbara Benner) who enters the meeting with her new, sexy French-speaking attendant Peter (Raziel Fritz). Ann is especially vocal when Joy announces the speaker is none other than real estate developer Lionel Burke (handsome and very well dressed Tom Reilly), who has bought the property and is excited to announce his plans for renovated it into a "destination for seniors" with first-floor businesses and apartments above for seniors and millennials looking for affordable housing in Los Angeles. Of course, the HUCKLEBERRY TOWERS residents are aghast learning their beloved retirement home will be razed and the new facility not ready for at least two years.The last scene, taking place six months later, has all the residents sitting in the darkened meeting room, with each awaiting being picked up and taken to their new home. With their moods as dark as the room itself, we listen in like a fly on the wall as each senior discusses where they are going, their displeasure at having to leave, worry about the future, and despair at leaving their friends for probably the last time. Each has their own story to tell, until just Henry and Louise are left. And although their scene is a bit too long, as they talk about how much they miss their former spouses yet celebrate the years they had together, we are reminded that in the end it is our friends who will be there for us. While the pacing of the performance was a bit slow on opening night, most likely due to nerves as well as the ages of most of the performers, I am sure as the shows continue that cues will be picked up more quickly and less lines forgotten. But the appreciative, sold out opening night audience certainly enjoyed the show, perhaps because all of us know the situation will be part of our own lifetimes sometime in the future. And it certainly is wonderful to see so many "elders" up on the stage since so many of them are subscribing audience members at every theater in the city.
In fact, did you know there are more than 28,000 assisted living residences in the U.S., housing more than one million people, according to the National Center for Assisted Living (NCAL)? The "typical" assisted living resident is an 83-year-old woman and the average age of all assisted living residents is 83. The average male/female ratio in assisted living residences is 74% women and 26% men, which certainly is reflected in the play.
HUCKLEBERRY TOWERS, written and directed by Stanley Brown, continues through Sunday, February 9 on Fri/Sat at 8pm, Sundays at 2pm, at the Lincoln Stegman Theatre, located at Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 6020 Radford Ave. in North Hollywood 91606, with free parking in the church lot. Produced for ELATE by Norma Burgess and Debbie Sadlouskos, tickets are $12 for adults and $10 for seniors and students. Reservations and information can be obtained by calling 818-509-0882 or buy your tickets online at www.brownpapertickets.com/event/4487032. The play is appropriate for ages 18 and over, and most performances will sell out so order your tickets ASAP. Please note the theater can only be accessed down a flight of stairs and is not handicap accessible, which is unfortunate given the subject matter of the play.
Photos provided by Stanley Brown