Coup de Grace

Joyce Gittoes is so captivating in Grace and Glorie that I, enraptured by her performance, occasionally lost my place in the story. That Gittoes' charismatic portrayal of a dying woman overwhelms an excellent story and an equally worthy performance by her co-star makes her accomplishment all the more impressive.

As Grace, Gittoes vacillates between anger and glee, between exhaustion and passion, without ever tilting toward one extreme, and without ever once appearing actorly. Grand gestures wouldn't complement Grace, whose homely demeanor requires the invisible technique Gittoes hands her. Confined for most of the play to a large bed, she acts from the shoulders up, conveying vast emotions with a shrug or a shake of her large, white head.

She's playing Grace Stiles, a 90-year-old woman who's just been diagnosed with terminal cancer. She's come home from the hospital to spend her last days in her cabin in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains. She's quickly joined by Gloria Whitmore, a fortyish hospice volunteer from Manhattan who has followed Grace home, uninvited, to care for her. Grace doesn't need anyone to help her die; certainly not a chic city woman who's scared of chickens and can't handle a wood-burning stove or a well-water pump. By the end of the first act, it's apparent who is providing service to whom, and the story and characters unfold as gracefully as author Tom Ziegler's snappy and expressive dialogue.

Grace and Glorie sounds depressing, but isn't. Ziegler's women are life-affirming and spiritual without being sappy; humorous but not at the expense of the play's deeper purpose. The author describes Grace's death as part of her life, and the loss of Glorie's young son with no trace of mawkishness. While his story is sentimental and occasionally predictable, it's never banal or boring.

Ziegler raises familiar questions about religion ("Does God exist?"; "If He does, why is He so unfair?") and the ways in which people are interconnected, but there's no commentary on race relations. Although the Black Theater Troupe has cast an African-American actor as Grace, the play is not meant to be played by women of any particular ethnicity. (Grace and Glorie's original 1996 off-Broadway run starred Estelle Parsons and Lucie Arnaz; Gena Rowlands and Diane Lane played in the 1998 film version.)

The women forge a tentative friendship that quickly evolves into life lessons for both. These lessons are flavored by familiar metaphors, like the riffs on "our sister Eve" and "forbidden fruit" whenever the two discuss women's roles in society. (Grace lives on the edge of a 500-acre apple orchard that she's just sold to land developers.) But the performances are so interesting that even at the play's most predictable moments, it hardly matters that we've seen some of this material before.

Helen Hayes' expert portrayal of Glorie is a revelation. Her character has the tougher journey, and the script affords her better speeches and more comic moments. But Hayes draws on more than Glorie's thoughtful dialogue: Left to recall her life, the panic and longing on her face nearly obliterate the monologue about her son's tragic death. Hayes plays Glorie's conventional sight gags (most of them pertaining to preparing food without the aid of kitchen appliances) with great economy, making them even funnier with madcap facial expressions and perfect timing.

Such happiness is transitory, however: This is a play about dying. Ziegler forestalls that inevitability with peeks into the soul of a virtuous do-gooder and a bossy old woman, and the result is a surprisingly poignant and often tranquil entertainment.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela