Tea in The Afternoon
nytheatre.com review by Terri Galvin
August 16, 2006
Forgetfulness, confusion, depression, lack of control over body and mind. No doubt about it, aging is not for the timid. And one needn't be pushing 80 to experience its fallout. Nobody witnessing the deterioration of an elderly loved one could dispute Shakespeare's grim verdict that the "Last scene of all, . . . Is second childishness, and mere oblivion..."
Pity, then, the plight of poor Elizabeth in Vanessa Shealy's affecting little gem, Tea in the Afternoon. After having nursed her late, much beloved grandmother through a prolonged bout with cancer, Elizabeth discovers that Grandma (who reared Elizabeth from the age of seven) has bequeathed her entire estate not to her, but to the grandmother's heretofore-unknown sister, Bes. Her grief now tinged by bewilderment and betrayal, Elizabeth has traveled cross-country to arrive on this mysterious great aunt's doorstep, and is looking for some answers.
Judging by her initial encounter with Bes, however, she's not likely to get any soon, and it's a credit to both the writing and acting that we're never completely certain how much information Bes is cagily withholding and how much is irretrievably buried among flagging neural pathways. Originally intending only a brief visit, Elizabeth, observing her aunt's instability, briskly sets to work with the reassuring competence of an experienced caregiver. What unfolds is a tender exploration of mutual need sprinkled with reciprocal antagonism as each woman warily seeks in the other some echo of the missing grandmother/sister.
Eventually, Elizabeth's investigation into family secrets becomes secondary to the genuine satisfactions afforded by a relative as colorful—and maddening—as Bes. And make no mistake, Bes is a handful. Vaulting from querulous agitation to genial concern, she shrieks about imaginary intruders and then solicitously clucks over Elizabeth's finances. Funny, warm, and generous one moment, she's vicious and accusatory the next. As Bes's hold on reality disintegrates, however, her "second childishness" enables these women to reveal—and, more importantly, rewrite—harrowing chapters of personal history in ways that aren't always available to the more youthful and coherent.
Alice Spivak's portrayal of Bes is impeccable in its authenticity, agility, and attention to detail. She soars to vertiginous altitudes of panicked and addled disorientation, only to land with pinpoint precision into icily calculating lucidity. Whether her prevarications and paranoia are vestiges of long-embedded scar tissue, or the more recent (and relatively manageable) manifestations of dementia, we're spellbound by every last twitch. Her performance alone is reason to see this play.
Not that this production lacks reasons. As Elizabeth, playwright Shealy more than holds her own against Spivak's force of nature, and both actresses are well served by Jon Michael Murphy's scrupulously structured direction. Ana Vallejo's set is convincingly cluttered with a palpable veneer of grime, while Bes's stained, yellowed housedresses, as conceived by Anna Oldham, are redolent of reclusive squalor.
It would be a shame if this play, so modest in scope and traditionally linear, gets lost amidst the Fringe's penchant for outrageous titles and Broadway-potential hype. After all, its themes of identity, memory, and imagination are at the very heart of a festival like this, indeed of the very creative process itself. Moreover, it eloquently reminds us that re-creating our circumstances and ourselves is central not only to art, but to the ridiculous, valiant attempt to forestall the inevitable—our own relentless descent into that not-so-"mere" oblivion.