After 15 years of making his Master of Social Work degree earn its keep at various retirement facilities, Mark Cherniack appears to have learned a hard lesson: Getting old is painful. His one-man play, Jalopies, presents inspired-by-true-stories from inside a Seattle assisted-living facility. While not altogether devoid of hope, these stories are none too cheery.
It’s not idyllic, but Ballard Court Retirement Home is an egalitarian place at the outset of the play. Residents addled by Alzheimer’s — pronounced “ol’ timers” by Cherniack — mingle freely with the fully mobile, the wheelchair-bound and the blind. Ballard Court is the kind of place where a person can introduce themselves to a newcomer at breakfast, only to learn at lunchtime that their new pal has died. Still, it’s more of a home than a facility, and the residents are bound together by friendship and the inescapability of their daily rituals.
The interactions of nine of the residents are rendered with seamless fluidity by Cherniack, including Hank, a blind long-distance runner; Maurice, a 98-year-old French charmer; and the only married couple in the joint, Esther and Peter. Peter is one of those afflicted with “ol’ timers.” Esther is a leader from the mold of Little Orphan Annie, and she is about to meet her Miss Hannigan.
The unheralded arrival of a new manager at Ballard Court sets the old folks’ downhill slide in motion. Mr. Williams, a villain never allowed to be human, informs the residents that their home has been purchased by too-ironically named Tender Loving Care Incorporated. Newcomer Sylvia puts her finger on Mr. Williams’ plans immediately. Confined to a wheelchair at the age of 55 and briefly interred in a nursing home by her callous husband prior to her arrival at Ballard Court, she has more experience with the aging industry than the other residents. In most of “these places,” she tells them, dementia patients are kept separate from the rest of the residents. In short order, Mr. Williams sets about bringing Ballard Court up to industry standards.
A segregated sitting room for the Alzheimer’s patients is set up in the basement. Those who are infirm, like Maurice and Sylvia, are sent eviction notices ordering them to roll along to a nursing home so their apartments can be rented to healthier seniors. And, as the final straw, Esther is informed that her husband of 65 years must move out, though his days are already numbered in the single digits by congestive heart disease. Esther tries to fight back, organizing resident meetings, negotiating with Mr. Williams for just a few more days with her husband, and pleading with those who have given up on life itself under the new rules to keep on breathing.
Cherniack’s ability to flow from role to role within each scene is impressive. Aided by nothing more than a handful of black wooden blocks on an all-black stage, he creates tiny worlds inhabited by fully formed people, which hover before the audience briefly, then waft away. Within the space of a paragraph of dialogue, he minutely renders a pair of old women fogged by dementia as they try to comprehend a twisted figure trapped in an elevator, the stroke-paralyzed figure’s snappy response from within the twin prisons of the elevator and her wheelchair, and the intervention of a formidable but faded peacemaker. Shaking with a palsy that’s just barely visible through his loose-fitting gray suit one minute, shuffling along with the aid of an imaginary walker the next, his performance has an elegance that more than does justice to the real people who inspired his characters. There is one exception, however.
While Cherniack never goes so far as to twirl an imaginary mustache or utter a malevolent cackle, his take on Mr. Williams is notably devoid of dimension in a play dominated by well-crafted characters. “This place is a revolving door. Mr. Williams has one job, and one job alone: To clear out all the jalopies and make way for the new models,” observes Sylvia, summing up Mr. Williams precisely. It would have been more effective had Cherniack never allowed the audience to see this figure of menace, whose mere presence is enough to make once-active seniors take to their rooms for days on end, for fear of being judged infirm and sent away to the dreaded nursing home. In the flesh, he’s bad beyond believability.
One by one, the residents either die, are sent to purgatory with bed pans, or both. It’s an unpleasant process for the audience, losing Hank, who learned to race as a kid by giving his four older brothers the finger, then running away; or Maurice, who quips with Gallic refinement from his wheelchair, “It’s no Cadillac, but it has a French motor. Me!” Certainly, there’s no other possible outcome, given the constraints of the play’s theme and style. This is not a story of sassy seniors who comically get one over on the young whippersnappers, or the tale of an otherworldly fountain of youth, à la Cocoon. As the death toll mounts toward the end, the narrator, an aged Mariner’s fan named Ray, informs the audience exactly what the play’s take-away is. Jalopies is the old folks’ side of the story. Sadly, it’s a story of powerlessness in the face of a younger generation that values profits over people, the physical and mental deterioration that comes with age, and the inevitability of death.
Depressed yet? Perhaps there’s something to be said for a “Golden Girls” fantasy of aging, complete with laugh-track.
If you go: Jalopies is on stage at Annex Theatre, weekends through Dec. 10. $10. For tickets, visit www.annextheatre.org.