The preem of John Belluso’s legiter offers an often engrossing glimpse into the anguished but resilient soul of 32-year-old polio victim Gretty Myers (Ann Stocking), who would rather die than face the further deterioration of her wheelchair-bound body. It is an earnest, beautifully performed work whose parts are greater than its whole. Thesp Joe Regalbuto (“Murphy Brown”), in his first legit helming effort, instills great veracity into Belluso’s theme, but the work suffers from ponderous overstatement of the playwright’s agenda.
Set in 1955, the action centers on Gretty, who languishes in a nursing home in which her support group is limited to a loony old woman named McCloud (Pamela Gordon); the unfeeling, autocratic Dr. Caplan (Kip Gilman); and sympathetic but conflicted young Dr. Henry (Jay Underwood). In a thoroughly realized performance, Stocking instills in Gretty a fascinating amalgam of militancy, fear, sensuality and humor as she attempts to deal with her physical paralysis with only intelligence and a quick wit, as well as her right arm, her only unparalyzed body part.
Gretty contracted polio as a teen-ager, long before the emergence of Dr. Salk’s miracle drug. She drove her loving brother out of her life and now suffers from the guilt of his subsequent suicide.
Meanwhile, cost-conscious Dr. Caplan intimates her condition might be worsening, which could necessitate her being shipped off to a facility that would place her in an iron lung for the rest of her life. And, aware that her growing affection for Dr. Henry can have no resolution, she decides she desires only that he help her commit suicide.
The only respites from Gretty’s miseries are her friendship with McCloud, who imagines herself to be a dangerous psychopath, and her daily dose of television. Gretty’s favorite show is “This Is Your Life” (with Gilman as Ralph Edwards). In one installment, the show focuses on Hideko (Jennifer Chu), one of the “Hiroshima Maidens” brought to the U.S. in 1955 for medical treatment.
Belluso utilizes Hideko’s plight as a launching pad for Gretty’s dream-like fantasies, which eventually lead to her salvation. Imagining herself traveling the “backwards wind of time” with the scarred Japanese woman, learning of the horrific details of the bombing and Hideko’s determination to survive, Gretty finds the fortitude and the will to confront her own infirmity.
It’s an intriguing premise, but Belluso overburdens Gretty’s spiritual journey with heavy-handed plot points and overstated character agendas that undermine his goal.
But the production certainly has its moments. Regalbuto never allows the throughline of the work to sag, and is rewarded with perfs from an excellent supporting ensemble. Gordon nearly steals the show as the wacky McCloud, who enlists Gretty’s assistance in her devious plan to escape the nursing home. Her ribald tale of living in Paris during the ’20s and being seduced by F. Scott Fitzgerald is hilarious.
Gilman is properly bloodless as Dr. Caplan and segues nicely into the intrusive, sanctimonious persona of Edwards. Underwood offers the proper blend of idealism and sensitivity as Dr. Henry, as well as inhabiting the uncomfortable, emotionally withdrawn character of Enola Gay crew member Capt. Lewis, who appears on “This Is Your Life” with Hideko. Chu exudes exuberance and feistiness as the disfigured Hiroshima survivor.
Daniel Saks’ impressive, open set allows the action to flow effortlessly through various locations. Jeremy Pivnick’s lighting is unobtrusive, and sound work by Robert Arturo Ramirez is solid.