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A CurtainUp Review
Gretty Good Time

At the core of John Belluso's new play, Gretty Good Time, there is a significant, provocative  theme.

Gretty Myers (Fiona Gallagher), age 32, confined to a wheelchair by polio and fearing the further deterioration her disease promises, wants to die. She languishes in a nursing home in which her support group is limited mostly to a loony old woman named Delores McCloud (Sally Loeb). McCloud fancies herself a dangerous psychopath and wants to stow away to Scotland. (She makes it as far as Staten Island.) Gretty spends many of her waking (and not-so-waking) hours watching television. The year is 1955; her favorite show is This is Your Life, starring Ralph Edwards (Ted Neustadt). Unfortunately, it only comes on once a week.

There are two doctors at this private nursing home: Dr. Caplan (Baxter Harris) and the younger Dr. Henry Foster (Richard Joseph Paul). They spend much of their time disagreeing. They argue at length about treatment options (Caplan favors sedation and Iron Lungs; Henry wants to talk about at-home alternatives), euthanasia (Henry believes in it; Caplan doesn't), empathy (Henry has it; Caplan doesn't), the economics of health care (Caplan doesn't like poor patients) and so on.

Dr. Henry's empathy extends to kissing Gretty. Later, at her suggestion, he gives her a sponge bath that extends even further.

On one week's installment of This is Your Life, the focus is on Hideko Kimura (Anna Li), one of twenty-five female survivors of Hiroshima who were brought to the United States for medical treatment in 1955 as a part of the Maidens Project. Edwards, portrayed here as an intrusive, sanctimonious ass, takes his audience through the paces on the Atomic Bomb and this woman's story. We also meet the decidedly uncomfortable Captain Robert Lewis (Harris), from the Enola Gay, who has been invited on the show for a reunion, as it were, between bomber and victim. She has severe radiation burns on her face; he reflects the confluence of guilt and honor on his.
As Gretty falls into somnolence while watching this show, she takes Hideko into her dream world. Hideko enables her to travel in the "backwards wind of time," learning about Hideko's history and in turn confronting and "cleaning" her own.

At this point, I might suggest scrolling back to the first sentence of this review. It conveys a notion that may have escaped you. And in this we find the essential problem with Gretty. There are ideas somewhere in here that are more than worthy of dramatization. They have to do with the reconciliation process that a disabled or disfigured person must undergo to understand and cope with life, and the elusive nuances of dignity that are missing in the way the disabled are perceived. This is powerful stuff, and Belluso has the wherewithal to write about it effectively. He has a terrific dramatic sense, an excellent ear for dialogue and the advantage of personal experience from which to draw. It's unfortunate that in this play he gets bogged down in a dense stew of extrania.

The net effect is a play, the parts of which are greater than the whole. The greatest of the great, here, is Fiona Gallagher's masterful, totally committed performance. Confronted with the physical demands of portraying a character possessing the use of only one of four limbs, this could easily turn into an acting class exercise, but it does not. She is also adept in conveying Gretty's emotional needs, vulnerability and combustibility. It's a memorable performance unfortunately in a less memorable play.

The remainder of the cast is also quite good. In particular, Richard Paul finds the right blend of idealism and sensitivity as Dr. Henry, and Baxter Harris is especially good in his portrayal of the bomber-jacketed Captain Lewis. Sally Loeb plays her wacky character in a fairly low key, resisting the temptation to go over-the-top, a choice with which she probably could have stolen the show.

Susann Brinkley's direction is splendidly balanced, and well paced. She makes very good use of the space, designed by Dan Kuchar on two levels (naturally including a ramp) and easily affording even more performing areas.

Gretty Good Time was not a bad time. But it fails to capitalize on what could have made Gretty great.

by John Belluso 
Directed by Susann Brinkley 
with Fiona Gallagher, Baxter Harris, Anna Li, Sally Loeb, Ted Neustadt and Richard Paul 
Set Design: Dan Kuchar 
Lighting Design: Greg MacPherson 
Costume Design: Amela Baksic 
Sound Design: Jeremy Posner 
Ensemble Studio Theatre, 549 West 52nd Street (10/11 AV) (212) 247-4982 
opened January 24, 1999 closes February 7, 1999 
Seen January 21, 1999 and reviewed by Les Gutman January 25, 1999
©Copyright, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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