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BWW Review: Lab Theater Project Presents Owen Robertson's Original SO LONG LIFE at the Silver Meteor Gallery

BWW Review: Lab Theater Project Presents Owen Robertson's Original SO LONG LIFE at the Silver Meteor Gallery

"Time it was, and what a time it was, it was...A time of innocence, a time of confidences....Long ago it was...I have a photograph...Preserve your memory; they're all that's left you." --from "Old Friends/Bookends" by Simon & Garfunkel, one of the pre-show songs to SO LONG LIFE

They warned me ahead of time. "She won't recognize you," they said. " She didn't even recognize her own brother." I was visiting my elderly aunt, who had spent her younger years studying painting under Hans Hoffman and accidentally going to Midnight Cowboy, thinking it was an old fashioned western. She was always quirky and paranoid, thinking strangers were recording her with hidden microphones and turning the TV to the wall so it wouldn't be watching her every move. She was in a retirement home where her mind began disappearing completely in the fog of dementia. She didn't recognize any family members, didn't do much of anything anymore. Just stared at an aquarium, sitting silently. I walked into her room, anticipating the worst. My aunt took one look at me, flashed a smile on her face, and screamed out, "PETE!" She had recognized me in a heartbeat; it was perhaps the last time she would recognize anybody.

I thought of that encounter with my aunt after viewing Owen Robertson's original new play about Alzheimer's, SO LONG LIFE, produced at the Silver Meteor Gallery in Ybor by the Lab Theater Project (which specializes in newly written, untried, unproduced plays). It's exciting because, with new works, we may be on the ground floor of greatness, the first witnesses to something special. Even when a show is far from perfect, as SO LONG LIFE certainly is, we still feel that excitement that new plays can bring.

SO LONG LIFE centers around old man Ken Masters, a retired actor with so many secrets, whose mind is slowly being snuffed out by Alzheimer's Disease. At the bar named after him, hIs daughter and friends take care of him through the ups and downs (mostly downs) of his condition. They watch helplessly as he comes in and out of lucidity, occasionally getting the glimpse of the real Ned. But all of that changes when a stranger, Charlie Cloud, walks into the bar. Who is Charlie, and what does he have to do with Ned?

Even though the work is riveting, Robertson's script still needs work. Overwrought and overwritten at times, the play tries too hard, teetering unhealthily towards the world of melodrama, including a revelation near the end that plays out like a TV detective drama--all of a sudden we went from Death of a Salesman to Matlock. There are also just too many pat lines, too many obvious plot devices and secrets that the audience can predict long before. And Ned's insults sound like the playwright frequently consulted the Shakespeare Insult Kit that actor friends sometimes post on Facebook.

Still, the play has definite power and much to recommend.

Dennis Duggan, as Ned, is an imposing presence. One of the most powerful performers in the area, he always brings his A-game, is always electric to watch onstage. As Lenny in Of Mice and Men, Jessup in A Few Good Men, Juror #3 in 12 Angry Men, and the latter part of last year's Proof, Duggan has built himself quite a resume, one of our top character actors. And here he gets to play a variety of personalities--a lost soul whose mind is crumbling combined with the various parts, mostly from Shakespeare's canon, that he's played throughout his career. Last year, when Duggan performed Proof, I compared his looks to a Van Gogh painting. This year, with his gray beard, he brings to mind Manet's "Man Smoking a Pipe." What is it about this particular actor and his beard that takes me back to the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists for comparison?

Sensational as Duggan is here, it's sometimes hard to tell the difference between the theatricality of the parts he has played, the ones that emerge from Ned's memory, with the lost soul struggling with Alzheimer's. In the intimate surroundings of the Silver Meteor Gallery, he's almost too theatrical, where less is oftentimes more, where it looks like he's acting rather than being. It's a fine line here, because he is "acting" all those roles that are trapped in his memory, but it sometimes seems like he's "acting" the part of Ned as well (especially when we're so close and intimacy can hit us harder than bombast). Duggan is exceptionally strong in his silent moments, sitting lost (like my aunt years ago), silently mouthing words, tapping his fingers on a table, his mind tragically adrift. It's extraordinary work, even if some of the strokes are too broad for the tiny Silver Meteor Gallery.

The intimate surroundings help Kevin Tydlaska-Dziedzic's performance as the stranger, Charlie. His quietness, his total lack of theatricality, plays well opposite Duggan. Although the performance is sometimes too inward, with nary a facial expression, he comes across very real, always on the verge of tears. Tydlaska-Dziedzic is new to our local theatre scene, and he offers a freshness, whispered and haunting, to the role. It's a heartbreaking turn.

Julia Rudgers as Ned's daughter, Maggie, gives a gut-wrenching, raw performance. Her Act 2 scene with her father, replaying the joy they once had, is the highlight of the play, much thanks to Rudgers and Duggan. Donna Delonay keeps the whole thing real and light as Mary. And Slake Counts is always a burst of energy whenever he appears onstage.

Director Caroline Jett has done an admirable job in bringing SO LONG LIFE to life, with fine performances and her actors moving around an unusual set like chess pieces. Owen Robertson's immersive set design, where the audience sits in chairs lining the bar walls, works quite well, although the audience often finds itself splitting focus, not knowing exactly where to look, especially when actors are standing on opposite sides of the bar. The pre-show songs, such as "Yesterday When I Was Young" by Roy Clark and the aforementioned Simon & Garfunkel song, were much appreciated.

Lab Theater Project is a godsend to the Tampa Bay area. Their aim is simple: To bring new artists with new works, spotlighting new ideas and new voices, to local audiences. And even when a show is hit or miss, as this one is, its heart is in the right place, so this theater company needs to be supported. People need to see these shows, so that the company can continue to nobly serve our area. And with this particular play, it had me wistfully remembering my dear aunt and that moment of recognition, the same one that Ned sometimes gives his children. Thanks to SO LONG LIFE, I'll never forget that moment when a person lost in dementia jolted to life and remembered my name. It was thirty years ago, and yet it feels just like yesterday. That's the power of theater.

SO LONG LIFE runs through July 22.

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From This Author Peter Nason