Dying Declaration

In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, an old woman has left the impersonal confines of a city hospital for the warmth of her remote cabin so that she might die quietly. Grace Stiles (Judy Phelan-Hill), a lifelong mountain dweller, has been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the ninety-year-old recluse wants no part of hospitals, drugs or bromide-laden brochures explaining how she can "cope" with her final exit.

As a developer's bulldozers clear the 500 acres that once belonged to her, she shuts out the modern world by availing herself of one of its devices: Donning a pair of Sony Walkman earphones, she closes her eyes, listens to gospel music and rests in her wrought-iron bed. Death, no matter how close by, will not find her at the door watching and waiting for it.

But before Grace can hum herself to heavenly rest in Tom Ziegler's play Grace and Glorie, Gloria Whitmore (Deborah Persoff) arrives on the scene to thwart Grace's plans to die in peace. Glorie, as Grace calls her, is a transplanted New Yorker who's new to the country and its ways, but bereavement is not a foreign subject to her. In the wake of her twelve-year-old son's tragic death in an automobile accident (he was a passenger in the car she was driving), the former career executive has decided to volunteer full-time to help others come to terms with death. She insists that she has dealt with her feelings about Danny's demise, but we suspect otherwise as we watch her constantly busy herself in an attempt to outrun her own emotions. Our gut feeling that she's not yet over her son's death will be confirmed later in the play.

Under the capable direction of John Ashton, the two characters' symbiotic relationship quickly takes shape. Soon after discovering the reason Glorie has come to her one-room dwelling, Grace tells the New Yorker to take a hike. But as the younger woman turns toward the cabin's doorway, Grace has a change of heart. Realizing that Glorie's departure will leave her alone with her thoughts, Grace snatches off her headphones and strikes up an impromptu conversation about her friend Bernice. The two actresses play the poignant moment beautifully, manifesting qualities early on that will prove to sustain the two-and-one-quarter-hour drama.

Phelan-Hill's and Persoff's performances surmount the obstacles inherent in most two-character plays, which have a tendency to become Socratic lessons in which one character asks a question and the other gives an answer, thereby disguising a playwright's sermon as dialogue. While Ziegler sometimes uses this technique to stand on his soapbox about culture clashes (city versus country) and lifestyle choices (working woman or housewife?), it's the characters' relationship--and not the playwright's opinions--that holds our interest.

Phelan-Hill is on stage for the entire play (most of the time confined to a bed), but her homespun wisdom and plain talk never degenerate to the level of hillbilly caricature. Instead, she embodies the qualities suggested by the Shaker rocker that sits by her bed, blending a practical approach to life with a deep commitment to spirituality. When she finally allows Glorie to videotape what will become her last will and testament, the few words she speaks are all that are needed to sum up a long life of simple gifts.

Ziegler's play contains a few clinkers and awkward references. For instance, during a deep discussion of the meaning of life, Glorie refers to a mouse that has died earlier in the play and remarks, "I'm not some miserable rodent in a trap!" Not the easiest of lines to utter, though Persoff delivered it with professional aplomb on opening night.

Through it all, we listen to Grace's and Glorie's thoughts about life and death (we even weather a litany describing what the last few moments before death are like), laughing with them and occasionally shedding a tear for them. Though the play is more sentimental than it is moving, we feel as though we've found a couple of new friends by the time the lights dim for the last time.--Lillie

Grace and Glorie, through November 15 at the Avenue Theater, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 321-5925.

 
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