Two decades ago, when playwrights bothered to tackle characters of retirement age, themes generally concerned aging with dignity and how to keep from becoming obsolescent in an increasingly youth-oriented society. D.L. Coburn's Pulitzer-winning Gin Game, set in a senior residence, pitted a charming but volatile old man against a prickly old lady. On Golden Pond charted the survival of a marriage despite the debilitations of old age.
Senior citizens now live longer than ever, leading to a boom in the over-65 population. However, modern medicine has lagged in the treatment of ailments common to the elderly, such as cancer, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimers, senility and heart disease. The result is a growing subgroup of people who need to be taken care of. Social security and insurance are supposed to shift the responsibility to state and government agencies, but as anyone faced with the rapid decline of a grandparent knows, the burden generally falls on family.
Playwrights have not been blind to the national crisis of senior care. Implicit in many new plays are two questions: "What will I do when my parents get this way?" and "What will I do when I get this way?
Another Pulitzer Prize-winner, Edward Albee's Three Tall Women, looked at both the horrors of aging and its comforts. In act one, the crusty old woman fades in and out of reality while enduring constant bouts of agony. Luckily she's rich, and has a lawyer in the family looking out for her best interests. Act two dodges the pragmatic questions raised earlier and instead examines three stages in the old lady's life, synthesizing them into a difficult but ultimately worthwhile tenure on earth.
Arthur Miller, himself an octagenarian, has turned ruminative about old age in recent plays. The one-act I Can't Remember Anything, paired with The Last Yankee at Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre this past season, featured Joseph Wiseman as a geezer exasperated by, yet emotionally connected to, a middle-aged woman who wants to be more than his friend. She makes it her business to check up on him -- no one else does -- though he's still well enough to get around and take care of himself. Miller's brand-new play, Mr. Peters' Connections, features Peter Falk as a senior citizen living through an internal monologue of his own life. Though reviews for the Signature Theatre world premiere have been mixed at best, critics have pointed out that Connections may be Miller's most personal piece since After The Fall.
On a lighter note, Neil Simon has gone a while without a new hit, but the current Broadway revival of his Sunshine Boys has earned both good reviews and a lengthy run. Considered by many to be Simon's best play prior to his Brighton Beach trilogy, The Sunshine Boys brings together two aged, and impossible, former vaudevillians, recreating their most famous sketch for a TV special. By the end of the comedy, one has had a heart attack, the other can no longer live with his children, and both are consigned to the same old age home.
Ah, but all these characters are, to a great degree, physically and mentally functional. A recent batch of plays have begun to look at the havoc caused by old folks no longer able to fend for themselves. In Visiting Mr. Green, an Off-Broadway showcase for Eli Wallach, an alter kocker resists the assistance of a young gay man forced to do community service. Mr. Green's forgetfulness and physical weakness, however, make the do-gooder's visits as inevitable as their later friendship.
A similar set-up may be found in Grace & Glorie, an Off-Broadway comedy/drama that also made the rounds of regional theatres. There, the object of attention is a fiercely independent old woman living in a rustic and remote cottage. The yuppie who offers her with groceries and basic household chores is, at first, met with tremendous resistance, but ultimately physical infirmity takes precedence over personal freedom.
Even so, Glorie and Mr. Green are in comparatively good shape compared to Eliot, the sad figure at the center of Nagle Jackson's play (currently world premiering at the Denver Center), Taking Leave. With Alzheimer's pushing him ever further out of the real world, the character is, literally, "taking leave" of his senses. After years of honing his intellect as an English professor, old age has left him a widow with three grown but messed-up children and a house he doesn't even recall is his own. Physically, Eliot is still in fine shape (he's only 62), but his mental decline has been as brutal as it has been rapid. He rarely recognizes his own children, angrily jumps from topic to topic, constantly searches for the right word ("I was looking for...the thing that goes with the other thing. You know, the thing"), sleeps on the floor, believes he's living in a hotel run by incompetent women, and runs naked into the yard.
Author Jackson has a pre-senility Eliot observing and commenting upon his older self, making the point that Alzheimer's victims become content only when they give up the last vestiges of personality, memories and knowledge that made them themselves. It's the struggle between staying in the real world and letting senility take over that is the most frustrating thing for the patient to undergo.
Taking Leave also focuses on Eliot's three children. The play's intentional parallels to King Lear aside, all three are shown coping (or not coping) with dad's dementia. One daughter fights to keep the others from putting him away, yet she can't bear to look after him for more than a few minutes. Her sibling is a highly-organized, type-A type, too high strung and practical to make caring for papa her only priority. It is daughter number three, a substance abuser who gets by on her youth and wanderlust, who eventually bonds with Eliot. Cordelia (yes, Cordelia) sees his illness not as a retreat from reality, but as a transition into a different kind of reality. Just because we don't understand it, she argues, doesn't mean it isn't valid. The playwright seems to side with Cordelia, though we can't help wondering whether the play's "happy" ending is only temporary, that Eliot's fits and dangerous behavior will be too much for Cordelia to handle.
That scenario was taken into account in the British play Curtains, wherein a middle-aged woman smothers her senile dad with a pillow and then tries to hide her euthanasia/murder from her family and the authorities. On the other side of the issue, Scott McPherson's masterpiece, Marvin's Room, shows a middle-aged woman who has sacrificed much of her life to take care of her vegetative father. (Oddly enough, in the New York productions of Curtains and Marvin's Room, both protagonists were played by the same actress, Laura Esterman.) Rather than view this caregiving as a waste of her good years, Marvin's daughter, herself a cancer victim, dwells only on the love she feels, on the joy of being needed.
Whether future plays on the elderly will focus on the tribulations of the seniors themselves or on the decisions faced by their families, one thing is certain: the senior population explosion is likely to make age, healthcare and familial responsibility major topics of drama in the decade to come.
-- By David Lefkowitz