Monday, January 20, 2020

IRT's 'Morning After Grace' brings some unresolved difficulties of older lives to the fore

Angus and Abigail confront the meaning of their night together.
Some people feel a calling to be helpful to others. Some feel a calling to have others help them. Often they are the same people, which gets complicated. There was a lot of this in my generation, where my place was at the front end of the life stage that grips the three characters in "Morning After Grace," a knotty comedy by Carey Crim now in production at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

We mixed up selflessness and selfishness, imagining we were tearing down walls. Let me tell you a story: In graduate school, I joined a T-group, shorthand for a sensitivity training group, which enjoyed a vogue in the late 1960s. We went deep into each other's lives in regular meetings, guided by a professional counselor. A half-dozen or so of us anxious scholars, approaching the end of the paid-for sessions, were feeling incipient separation anxiety.

The bond we were so certain of had been created and sustained largely through Myron's gentle professionalism. One of us had a bright idea, outside the scheduled session: "We've all become good friends, and Myron is as much of a friend as anyone," she said to unanimous agreement. "Why don't we keep going as a group, and ask Myron to continue with us?"

The idea should have appalled the rest of us, but it didn't, not openly at least. It meant we would no longer pay Myron. Surely this wise, older guide was such a great, open-hearted soul that he would go along. We presented her idea to him at our last scheduled session. Somehow he declined so gracefully that the nervy idea vanished into thin air, with no evident hard feelings. But we had crossed a line, and no one spoke up to object to the cheap, unethical ploy. The world revolved around us, and all barriers were to be demolished through the force of our wry idealism. The fact that Myron was credentialed and paid to be as good as he was shouldn't matter, right?

OK, boomer.

That phrase, which tersely sums up the occasionally just critique of my generation by millennials, could well function as a dark subtitle for "Morning After Grace." The play throws together three professionals, retired or close to retirement, heading toward the Biblical limit of three score and ten. One of them, Abigail, still practices her profession of grief counseling, but she is called to be helpful in this play to assist resolution of her own griefs as well as those of her one-night-stand lover, Angus.

The key departure from what my T-group asked of Myron is that this is a voluntary application of Abigail's skills
Pot party: Climax of the funny stuff in "Morning After Grace"
that goes well beyond her three master's degrees and the fact that her professional bond with the third character, Ollie, focuses on the death of a pet. The raucous comedy set-up is rich at first, including a hilarious marijuana episode as the second act gets under way, but the darkening of the palette is expertly applied under Janet Allen's direction.

All three of these sympathetically portrayed people have self-work to do. The most real assistance any of us can make use of is probably through actual relationships, with payment in terms other than financial. Like every generation before or since, the one that came of age during what has been called "the American high" had to learn this. But it was our fault we forced ourselves to undergo greater disillusionment. We thought life was all about gift exchange, but we wanted that tilted toward our advantage. It's "easy to be hard," the song from "Hair" warned us; but we mocked it (at least the guys did) as "It's easy to get hard."

Henry Woronicz plays Angus displaying his usual gift for keeping a character's mask in place until it has to be thrown aside. He has crudely followed his wife Grace's funeral with an impulsive hooking up with Abigail, an accidental guest at the ceremony who nurtures a deep need to get back into action, her husband having dumped her. "Funerals are our singles bars," Angus says flippantly. Like Abigail, he also pursued a "helping profession," but in contrast to her, his work as a human-rights lawyer seems no longer pertinent. He lives in a blandly gorgeous dream condo, which scenic designer Bill Clarke has captured to perfection, as far as I can tell.

Angus' privileged status has some parallels with Abigail's life, though she has the advantage of relevance that retirees often struggle to sustain. As played by Laura T. Fisher, her wit and gift for repartee are linked to a firm notion of self-worth, undercut though it is by unmet emotional needs. Abigail's emergent vulnerabilities were poignantly delivered in the January 19 performance I saw.

Privilege is most compromised among the three charaacters in Ollie's situation. Hobbled by a hip injury, he is a former major-league baseball player further challenged in status by the sexual orientation he must keep hidden from his homophobic father, a nursing-home resident in Arizona. Ollie is also black, and commendably the playwright has little need to underscore that disadvantage on the top of the other. Compared to Abigail and Angus, he has the benefit of a stable, long-term relationship. Spats with James, his unseen partner, arise from his stark reluctance to come out to his father. Joseph Primes' performance was classy and resilient, revealing Ollie's eventual triumph of grace under pressure, thanks to Abigail and his own inner resources.

Evoking that Hemingway phrase brings me to the significance of the characters' names. "Angus" appropriately suggests anguish; the two hard consonants near the front of "Abigail" hint at her toughness, though the way the name softens and its sharing of an initial vowel with "Angus" gets at her tenderness. "Ollie" is deceptively soft on purpose, I believe, with a touch of irony. And how differently we would process this play if Angus' deceased wife were named Betty or Lauren! Grace is a quality that needs to emerge eventually from the play's roiling conflicts. It carries religious weight, so it is not absurd that Abigail's bringing up her clients' reports of butterflies or birds accompanying bereavement is confirmed by a cardinal's appearing to Angus through the skylight in the second act. Someone sitting near me said "Oh, no!" when this happened, but it worked.

The tension in the second act becomes nearly unbearable. The director's pacing has a masterly appropriateness;
Angus' defenses collapse as he comes to term with his wife's death.
the silences that mark Angus' pain are deafening. There was audience reaction: someone started applauding in anticipation of the final curtain, short of the play's necessary resolution. And, unprecedented in my theater-going experience, a man in my row left in front of us within ten minutes of the true ending. Nothing can break the theatrical illusion more thoroughly than someone even momentarily blocking your view. I tamed my annoyance by speculating that he had a really urgent call of nature. Then I hoped that if he had been triggered emotionally he might get the kind of help that eventually benefits Angus. Earlier, my own feeling at the successive departures of Ollie and Abigail in the second act I will credit to Crim: It was "please don't go" and "please come back." They did go, and they did come back. I had been on the floor there with Angus.

I'm also grateful to the playwright for not larding her script with topical Baby Boomer references. "Morning After Grace" doesn't need them. We don't have to hear the grief counselor talk about Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, or the ex-Tiger allude to Stormin' Norman or that hoss Kirk Gibson as he mimicked pulling a chain-saw rope while rounding the bases. In "Morning After Grace," we are placed in the now of life's approaching twilight and asked to understand the power of grace as it may come to us, whatever generation we identify with.

Mine may deserve such grace more than my T-group had any right long ago to implore a professional counselor to abandon his standing in order to answer our illegitimate "calling" to him to be friends. The way he answered that request has given me space to generate my own reproach.

So thank you, Myron.

And I'm sorry, Myron.

OK, boomer.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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