Four friends have been gathering yearly, for four decades, for a group photograph, but there’s a new angle that makes this year’s shoot problematic, in Susan Miller’s compelling new play “20th Century Blues,” running through January 28, 2018, at the intimate Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
The knowing director is Emily Mann, who first made her mark here, more than 30 years ago, as writer and director of “Execution of Justice,” about the trial of Dan White, assassin of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and openly gay City Supervisor Harvey Milk. The “20th Century Blues” set, the photographer’s apartment-cum-studio, is by Beowulf Boritt, with contemporary costumes by Jennifer von Mayhauser and lighting by Jeff Croiter.
“20th Century Blues” is marked by all the rhythms of conversations of women who have known one another for a very long time, as well it should, as it provides a vignette of an afternoon that is one of 39 others similar to it, over the lifetimes of four high-achieving women. The longtime friends constitute a study in diversity and contrast, making an apparently most robust roundtable.
The accomplished photographer in the quartet of companions is Danny (Polly Draper), artist, mother, daughter, dear friend, and divorced woman, with some history of fluid sexuality, who is about to have a MOMA retrospective and, when we meet her, is delivering a TED Global Initiatives Talk. She’s seemingly on the cutting edge of nearly everything—except truly knowing herself and her friends. Danny would display the 40 years of hitherto private photos at the forthcoming exhibition and the group is the subject of the TED Talk.
Mac (Franchelle Stewart Dorn) is an African-American lesbian activist journalist, with a liquid defense against time, the enemy. Gabby (Kathryn Grody) is a sensitive veterinarian, a breast cancer survivor and, prematurely, “a stealth widow-in-training,” residing in a hotel to practice eventually living alone. Sil (Ellen Parker) is a realtor, superior about her professional prowess and financial acumen, but contemplating a face lift in order to compete.
Completing the cast are Bess (Beth Dixon), Danny’s mother, who suffers from dementia, but remains unflaggingly cheerful, and Simon (Charles Socarides), Danny’s adult son, who boasts enviable rapport with his grandmother, as well as with his mother and her friends, and may be the key to ushering Mac into the mysterious world of on-line journalism. In the television miniseries “When We Rise,” about the early Gay Liberation Movement, Socarides played his brother Richard, President Bill Clinton’s gay and lesbian liaison, coming out to their father, Charles, Sr., notoriously homophobic founder of the National Association of Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, an organization that Mike Pence would relish.
There are some people whom we feel are family from the first meeting. Thanks to Miller and Mann, Danny, Sil, Mac, and Gabby are that gleesome foursome, and they have been sisters and more for the succeeding 40 years since they met. Throughout love affairs, marriages, children, divorce, and health issues, they have had one another’s backs. We do not often know the effects we have had on others until they speak, and this is an evening of stripping back the layers to what is most essential. How we see an event, and how another participant in the same event sees it, may be very different, and the strength and love of a relationship is tested as it’s weighed in the balance.
While there is no mounting crescendo or burgeoning storm in this play, playwright and director have devised and highlighted a series of subtle explosions, each of which has the power potentially to undermine the love each woman has for the others. Whether it does, and whether it will, are things you need to see for yourself. If you have been in love with an idea, had a parent with dementia, or ever noted the quantum nature of relationships, then you will resonate like a Tibetan singing bowl, as this play thrums with surface and depth.
See this show during its very limited run. Take one or more of the women you love, and let the heartache and the healing begin. For tickets, visit www.20thCenturyBlues.com
. The Pershing Square Signature Center is located at 480 West 42nd Street.