Anna Mary Robertson
Moses … Cloris Leachman
etc. …Craig Richard Nelson
Joy Ride: The True Story of Grandma Moses” focuses on one of America’s more celebrated painters, a farm woman who started painting in her late seventies and continued until shortly before she died in 1961 at the age of 101. While the play’s first act wanders and pokes about, making for a slow, dull ride, the second act, imbued with humor and a hint of conflict, is more successful.
From ages 12 to 27, Anna Mary Robertson (Cloris Leachman) was a domestic housekeeper. She then married a hired hand, Thomas Moses (Craig Richard Nelson), who bought a farm. Anna Mary bore 10 children (five died in infancy) and became a master fruit preserver and buttermaker, among other things.
Late in life, arthritis set it, so she took up painting as a hobby that was easier on her fingers than using an embroidery needle. An eccentric inventor saw one of her paintings in a drugstore, bought a few of them, and tirelessly sought recognition for Grandma Moses until a New York art dealer took him and her seriously. The art dealer focused the world on her American folk art, and she became a worldwide personality.
Leachman’s performance is a tour de force. In the first act, she’s Anna Mary at age 45, moving with Thomas from their Virginia farm to upstate New York, where they both grew up. The act, alas, has no purpose other than to show Mrs. Moses as a kind andreflective woman.
In act two, Leachman portrays Grandma at age 100. The effective transformation is due both to Stephanie Schoezel’s amazing makeup and Leachman’s body language.
Co-star Nelson moves from playing a variety of roles (mailman, husband, brother, etc.) to concentrate mostly on the Austrian-born art dealer Otto Kallir. Kallir fled Nazi persecution and opened a gallery in America. His run-ins with Mrs. Moses teach him much, and Nelson shows the man’s capacity for awe, making believable his astonishment at her instinctual use of color and composition.
Director Howard Dallin employs a rear-projection screen that provides images of 250 pieces from Moses’ more than 1,200 works.
Lighting by Kevin Adams and Duane Schuler and musical direction by Steve Kaminski reinforce the staging.
The play, previously titled “Grandma Moses: An American Primitive,” has been touring since 1989 to a general consensus: not much drama, but Leachman is incredible.