There aren’t a lot of playwriting pyrotechnics involved with Kenneth Lonergan’s “The Waverly Gallery,” an extremely modest memory play depicting the deterioration of a spunky elderly woman with Alzheimer’s disease and her family’s quietly heroic efforts to care for her. The quality of its sentiment, though, sets this work apart, and demonstrates what makes Lonergan, author of the plays “This Is Our Youth” and “Lobby Hero,” and writer-director of the film “You Can Count on Me,” such a bona fide talent. His assured control of tone and carefully calibrated balance of humor and pathos find keen expression at the Pasadena Playhouse under the direction of actor Bruno Kirby, who draws from Eve Roberts a central performance as lucid as her character’s mind is confused.
Roberts plays Gladys Green, an erstwhile lawyer and gregarious conversationalist who spends her days sitting in a little art gallery in Greenwich Village that she has run for more than 20 years, talking to the few people who enter. As the play begins, our narrator, Daniel Reed (Michael Weston), rather cheerfully tolerates his elderly grandmother’s meandering monologues, which never fail to circle back on themselves and repeat like a broken record.
As the play advances, though, what had seemed easy to take, even funny, becomes a convincingly heavy burden, wearing down Daniel as well as his mother, Ellen (Natalija Nogulich), and step-father, Howard (Ken Lerner), all of whom are determined to keep Gladys from the dreaded fate of a nursing home.
Other than Gladys’ gradual descent into dementia — in every scene, Ellen seems to note her mother is getting worse — the only real plot catalyst is the decision by the building owner (David Groh) to evict Gladys from her gallery so he can turn it into a breakfast cafe for his hotel next door.
That event throws the family into desperate straits. As long as Gladys has the gallery to go to during the day, she’s stable enough to live on her own in an apartment that Ellen owns, with Daniel occupying a flat down the hall. But without the daily activity of the gallery, Gladys almost certainly will have to move in with Ellen and Howard on the Upper West Side, an inevitable moment that everyone guiltily dreads.
This is by no means a callous family — just the opposite. Everyone likes — no, loves — Gladys, but her condition never fails to throw them into a state of utter exasperation. They are forced to confront their delusions — that Gladys is still capable of being independent or, in Daniel’s case, that he can somehow convince the building owner to put off closing the gallery out of the goodness of his heart.
We don’t need to be mentally ill to be deluded, Lonergan is telling us, with the best example being the young artist (Mark Rosenthal) who’s convinced that hanging his paintings in the gallery is what he’s been waiting for all his life. We live on our illusions, confronting the harsh realities only when forced to do so.
Director Kirby gets the fundamentals of this piece, its straightforward simplicity, its poignant humor, its overall sense of compassion. Some of the staging is a bit awkward — the Pasadena proscenium may be the toughest in town — and there are several scenes in which the actors seem to be lined up in a row.
And there’s certainly more that could be done with this piece. There’s not much theatricality to the memory element of the play, despite the appeal of set designer John Iacovelli’s pastel-colored panels. The transitions between proper scenes and direct-to-the-audience narration are a bit clunky, and while Weston has the easy likableness for the role, he tends to rush the important, narrated beats that key us into the subtle shape of the tale.
The cast is quite fine, with Lerner especially effective as the well-meaning son-in-law who can’t help putting his foot in his mouth, and Rosenthal capturing the narcissistic cluelessness of the undoubtedly talentless painter who thinks Gladys’ only problem is the quality of her hearing aid. It’s these portrayals that help establish a certain pixilated reality. Weston and Nogulich are a bit blander, but purposefully and appropriately so, and they deliver the ending scene with just the right understated emotion.
The show really belongs to Roberts, who manages to make us adore the dotty old lady who can’t help driving everyone around her more than a little bit nuts. She has a certain glow to her when she’s happy, a desperate sense of frustration when she’s confused. Obviously once an extremely sharp and friendly woman, Roberts’ Gladys is living in a world of jumbled memories that nobody else can enter, no matter how hard they try.
Lonergan, Kirby and Roberts all are careful not to shy away from how awful, how unrelentingly grating, Alzheimer’s disease really is. “The Waverly Gallery” provides no easy answers, just honesty. That’s what makes it a lovely, heartfelt little play.