“Assisted Living,” a world premiere by Katie Forgette, is a dark comedy about getting old, respecting human dignity, and examining how society treats the elderly, with some hijinks taken from a lost episode of “I Love Lucy.” Forgette does a remarkable job being fresh and funny about a subject not easily joked about without settling into well-worn Old People Jokes territory. The play also highlights the touchy yet unavoidable (considering the current state of US healthcare) question: is it socially irresponsible to be unhealthy? This hilarious new show plays through May 12 at ACT.
The play is set in a not-so-distant future where Medicare has run out and the government has determined that any “life choice-based” illness is your problem — have diabetes? Well that’s what happens when you eat candy. Hope you can pay for your own insulin. The residents of government-funded senior residential facilities are constrained by draconian Big Brother living conditions and quake under the constant threat of being permanently sedated.
Enter Joe Taylor, played by the brilliant Kurt Beattie (also ACT’s Artistic Director) and whose look is reminiscent of Mr. Fredericksen from “Up.” A retired actor having just arrived at the facility, Joe rounds up a group of misfits and discovers quite a few of them have a background in theatre, from that-one-time-in-junior-high to I-was-this-close-to-almost-being-on-Broadway. They decide to start doing play readings, sequestered in the diaper closet to avoid the evil head nurse, played with malicious delight by Julie Briskman (recently seen as Arkadina in “The Seagull” at ACT). In between scene changes, the loudspeaker blares clever commercials for organ donation and Alzheimer meetings (“Don’t forget!”).
It is no exaggeration to say that every actor, Seattle veterans all, in this production is excellent. Joe has a sweet little romance with Judy, played by Marianne Owen, a wise-crackin’ old broad who up until Joe came along was just trying to keep her nose clean. Laura Kenny as Mitzi is buoyant and optimistic, but not without a mischievous streak (no pun intended. . . you’ll see). Jeff Steitzer is spot on as the curmudgeony Wally, whose bark is worse than his bite — and delivers a fine “Hamlet” monologue to boot. He also doubles as another facility worker at the end, which was a little confusing at first, even with the Wayne’s World wig on. Tim Gouran plays Kevin, the assistant nurse who does a lot of the dirty (really dirty) work, but has a heart of gold and ends up helping the residents with their harmless fun. The montage of play readings where the residents tackle everything from Shakespeare to Shaw to the nativity play is priceless. It’s a wonderful reminder that one is never too old to participate in art, or play Eliza Doolittle.
If the show has a failing, it’s that it tips its hand a little early on — there is no doubt that the social message of the play is coming from a liberal viewpoint. The trouble is that bringing attention to American healthcare, aging (the program states that in 2016, 40% of the US population will be over 50), and personal responsibility/liberty is completely worth doing and this play does a wonderful job of weighing the pros and cons. Unfortunately, the sole conservative voice is an utterly deplorable human being who basically hates seeing old people happy and viciously hurls away her one moment of cogency as soon as she gets it. While this portrayal may not be a problem in Seattle, it limits the scope of the play’s audience, should it play somewhere else (and it should!)
But now you’ve got me rambling. Go ahead and take a trip to see “Assisted Living,” y’know, while you’re young. And would it hurt to call your grandmother once and awhile?
A world premiere by Katie Forgette
A Contemporary Theatre
700 Union St
Now through May 12
Tickets are $20-$41 (with seniors getting a 25% discount, of course!)