Theater Alliance revives 'Gretty Good Time' for International VSA Festival

By Jane Horwitz
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Gretty, a 30-ish woman in a hospital bed, listens skeptically as an eccentric biddy named McCloud waltzes around the room describing her capture by Spanish pirates. In fact, McCloud (played by Rosemary Regan) was caught by police after escaping the nursing home where she and Gretty (Ann Colby Stocking) are patients. Regan and Stocking were rehearsing the scene last week.

Theater Alliance is reprising John Belluso's 1998 magical-realist piece "Gretty Good Time" at H Street Playhouse from June 3 through July 3. It's being done in conjunction with the 2010 International VSA Festival, celebrating work by artists with disabilities. The festival runs June 6-12 at the Kennedy Center and other venues, such as H Street.

Gretty, who suffers from polio and is being warehoused in a nursing home, wants to die. Yet Belluso's play, set in 1955, explores a huge range of human experience: physical disability, love and longing, atomic bomb victims from Hiroshima, assisted suicide and time travel. Also making an appearance is Ralph Edwards (portrayed by an actor), host of the popular "This Is Your Life" TV show of the era.

"Gretty Good Time" won the VSA Playwright Discovery Award in 1998 and Theater Alliance's artistic director, Paul Douglas Michnewicz, directed it then, working closely with the playwright in a workshop performance at the Kennedy Center.

"John Belluso was such a major player in the disability arts movement," says Michnewicz, "and this play was so beautiful and got only one performance here in Washington. It just seemed like a natural fit [to revive it]. Our hearts were so broken when he passed away." Belluso, who used a wheelchair, died in 2006 at age 36, just as he was readying a new play for a reading at the prestigious Public Theater in New York. He had won multiple awards and was considered an up-and-comer.

Gretty can be a difficult patient and the nursing-home doctor in charge (Field Blauvelt) thinks she should be transferred to an institution to accommodate the iron lung he says she'll soon need. Gretty has decided to die before that happens. And she tries to get McCloud and the new young doctor (Daniel Eichner) on staff to help her.

Stocking, who's based in Los Angeles, has played Gretty before, and came to know Belluso through the now-defunct Mark Taper Forum Other Voices Project in L.A.

Belluso, she says, "lived disability. He was very interested in people staring at him and then turning the gaze back around." Gretty, the actress explains, wants to die because she is "where society has placed her . . . not having any choices. And the only reason is because her body is disabled."

Stocking, who had a childhood illness that caused orthopedic problems in her legs, walks but uses a wheelchair for longer distances. She says people come up to her on the street and ask if she's all right. Her response is, "I'm fine. I'm just walking. . . . I don't have an acute medical problem. I am a reasonably healthy person who walks differently because of previous medical conditions."

In the play, Gretty escapes through her dreams, in which she time-travels with a young Japanese woman, Hideko (Caitlin Gold), whose face was burned by the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Hideko is part of a group of Japanese women brought to America for plastic surgery to heal their more superficial wounds. In the play, she's featured on "This Is Your Life" and meets the U.S. pilot whose plane dropped the bomb.

For this revival, Michnewicz hired Jeanette Buck to direct. A playwright, filmmaker and long-ago stage manager in Washington theaters, Buck now teaches screenwriting and film directing at Ohio University. This is the first play she's ever directed. Michnewicz chose her because of her filmmaker's sensibility (the play uses a lot of projections) and because she belongs to the disabled community in a different way than the characters Gretty and Hideko. Buck was viciously beaten in 1999 by an assailant who broke into her cottage in Los Angeles. It took a long time to recover from the physical and psychic wounds that resulted. Her face had to be rebuilt. Her play about the experience, "There Are No Strangers," was done at Theater J in 2005.

So Buck feels a true connection to "Gretty Good Time." "I bring stuff to rehearsal," she notes dryly -- personal stuff. "Ten years ago I was attacked. . . . What if that hadn't happened in my life?" she muses. "I could relate to that part of the play: What do we do with this past that now is part of our makeup, that now is who we are? How do we digest it? How do we move forward? Those issues in the play really connect with me."

On tap at Wolf Trap

In terms of musical theater offerings that are classic scripted musicals, Wolf Trap began the summer season with "The Mikado" and will continue with "Cats" (June 18-20), "Mamma Mia!" (July 7-11), "Legally Blonde: The Musical" (Aug. 12-15) and "The Sound of Music" (Aug. 31-Sept. 5).

Quotidian's new season

Quotidian Theatre, which performs at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, will present a three-play season in 2010-11. It will open with "The Seafarer" (Nov. 12-Dec. 12) by Conor McPherson, in which the Devil shows up at a Dublin home where some ne'er-do-well gents are celebrating Christmas Eve. Artistic Director Jack Sbarbori will direct. Next is Athol Fugard's "Master Harold . . . and the Boys" (March 18-April 17, 2011), about race in South Africa circa 1950. Bob Bartlett will direct. Anton Chekhov, one of Quotidian's favorite playwrights (the other is Horton Foote), will close the season. "The Cherry Orchard" (July 8-Aug. 7, 2011) will be staged by Sbarbori.

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