It’s a family affair at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum as the legendary Grandpa Walton’s eldest daughter Ellen Geer, her sister Melora Marshall, and Ellen’s daughter Willow Geer make theatrical magic in The West Side Waltz, Ernest Thompson’s captivating slice of 1980s New York life.
Ellen stars as the irascible Margaret Mary Elderdice, longtime resident of an Upper West Side high-rise, who’s been keeping folks at arm’s length for decades, her largely lonely life made even more solitary by declining health.
Not that Margaret Mary spends all of her time by her lonesome, not with middle-aged eccentric Cara Varnum (Marshall) paying frequent (Margaret Mary would likely say too frequent) daily visits during which the two women play duets in three-quarter time, Mary Margaret on piano and Cara on violin.
Also stopping by from time to time is Eastern European immigrant super Serge (Miguel Perez), his latest visit prompted by the aging building’s once again on-the-fritz heating, yet another example of the owners’ attempts to freeze current tenants out and bring newer, more affluent tenants in.
Enter would-be actress Robin Bird (Willow Geer), who’s seen the ad Margaret Mary posted on the Rainbow Bookstore bulletin board (“Wanted. Someone to live in. Free room and board, light housekeeping, companionship, arrangements to be negotiated.”), and has come by about the job.
Though Cara is none too pleased that her friend would seek elsewhere for live-in companionship, Margaret Mary offers Robin the position, moved perhaps by her tale of a husband gone gay (and subsequently away), and the younger woman eagerly accepts the $50-a-week job.
Different as these three women are, they somehow end up bonding over the course of a year during which Margaret Mary’s mobility slowly declines (from an unspecified malady that seems miraculously not to affect her piano-playing fingers), Cara and her fellow disgruntled tenants meet to protest unsatisfactory building conditions, and Robin makes the acquaintance of handsome young civil rights attorney Glen Darson (Charles Lin) at a rally to protest the government’s inaction in the steadily worsening AIDS epidemic, one of whose victims Robin knows up close and personal.
The follow-up to playwright Thompson’s megahit On Golden Pond, The West Side Waltz lasted only 126 performances on Broadway despite Katharine Hepburn’s considerable star power.
It couldn’t have helped that New York Times drama critic Frank Rich hated the play, a review I find hard if not impossible to fathom because as far as I’m concerned, The West Side Waltz is as funny and smart and ultimately touching as a play can get, peopled by complex characters who never cease to surprise and delight and move an audience to tears.
Director Mary Jo DuPrey brings out the very best from her gifted cast, in particular the production’s three family-tied leads.
Ellen Geer delivers a tour-de-force star turn as a woman who’s been keeping the world at arm’s length for decades and would gladly keep it so if only her body would cooperate.
Marshall is a wacky, frizzy-haired treat as the irrepressible Cara, and Willow Geer vanishes into Robin’s bold and brassy, fresh-outta-Brooklyn skin (and skintight ‘80s regalia).
Perez steals every scene he’s in as the salt-of-the-earth Serge, and Lin’s eleventh-hour arrival as the oh so likeable (and oh so eligible) Frank proves a boon to Robin, Serge, and audiences alike.
Production designers have transformed Theatricum Botanicum’s outdoor stage into the faded luxury of a spacious West Side abode and Beth Eslick’s costumes suit both character and era to a T.
Zachary Moore’s exquisite lighting and John Eslick’s array of props complete the visual mix to perfection, and music director/sound designer Marshall McDaniel has us believing that Margaret Mary and Cara are indeed musicians.
Karen Osborne is stage manager and JP Pollinger is assistant stage manager. Beth Eslick is wardrobe supervisor. Taylor Jackson ross, A.M. Sannazzaro, and Sky Wahl are understudies. Lucy Pollak is publicist.
As was true in The Chalk Garden, August: Osage County, Lear, and The Royal Family, having Ellen Geer, Melora Marshall, and Willow Geer share the Theatricum Botanicum stage transforms an evening of live theater into a veritable theatrical event. The theatrical event that is The West Side Waltz is yet another cause for celebration.
Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga. Through October 1. See website for detailed performance schedule.
August 27, 2022
Photos: Ian Flanders
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