Amazing Grace

Invisible Theatre's 'Grace & Glorie' Is One Of This Season's Best.

MODERN DEATH," NOVELIST Don DeLillo observed nearly a decade ago, "has a life independent of us. It is growing in prestige and dimension." While the "toxic event" which inspired that commentary in 1991's White Noise is a far cry from the "backwoods" treatment death receives in playwright Tom Ziegler's Grace & Glorie, the disparate characters in each unfurl with humor and insight the paradox that modern death -- denied in private while publicly embraced as a growth industry -- has somehow gotten away from us.

Ziegler sets his tale on native soil, in Virginia's Blue Ridge Mountains, in an antiquated cottage lovingly brought to life by Invisible Theatre's James Blair and Stuart Moulton. Small but deep, that modest stage is transformed into a cozy, one-room retreat, where a fast-talking hospice worker fresh off the highway from New York City meets her wits' end in a slow-moving, 90-year-old widow.

Grace has cancer and she's dying, she tells her grandson, "just as fast as I can." She's abandoned her hospital bed in favor of her own quilted one, next to the wood-burning stove, in the place she's lived most of her life...with kitchen water pumped by hand and the Lord's prayer in lieu of 911. The only signs of the modern world are a toaster, a phone that doesn't work, and the sound of a developer's bulldozers bearing down on the old farmhouse and ancient apple orchards an ailing Grace signed over at the bank's urging.

Scene One is a fall afternoon on which bedridden Grace is alone, singing along to Ella Fitzgerald's "Throw Out the Lifeline" on a newfangled Walkman that drowns out the construction noise. She doesn't hear the terminally cheerful voice of one Gloria Whitmore blowing through the unlatched door like an unexpected autumn gust. Close behind is the physical form of the "carefully trained, impeccably professional" mystery herself -- an undaunted automaton of care and efficiency clad in an armor of solid gold earrings, Lancôme lipstick and gray Chanel wool. Grace takes in the clacking of her guest's formidable high heels and conversational hardball, narrows her eyes like a mule, and immediately begins to argue.

In other words, these practical women take to each other immediately, in the time-honored tradition of mothers and daughters, without acknowledgment or thanks.

"What on earth does my dying have to do with you?" Grace demands after their initial interview. "I thought dying was the one thing in life we're left to do on our own."

"I've assisted on two other cases," Gloria avers with patronizing reassurance.

"You mean to tell me you helped two other perfect strangers die?" says an incredulous Grace. "You do this for a living?"

"No," Gloria says, "I'm a volunteer."

Following the aphorism that laughter is the best medicine, this exchange marks the first dose of confounding irony administered regularly throughout Ziegler's wonderful script. As Gloria -- or "Glorie," as Grace persists in calling her -- battles with her charge over the respective merits of morphine and teams of experts, we see from the outset that it's the unsuspecting caregiver whose suffering is acute. Gloria's comical fear of life commands far more attention than Grace's stubborn fear of death, but the two hold equal sway as Ziegler simultaneously pokes fun at and deepens our understanding of death and dying.

His prodigious writing talent sketches characters as familiar as they are adaptable, entertaining us with their exterior lives as he subtly leads us into their interior ones. From an unlikely path laid with bedpans, hospice brochures, soft-boiled eggs and legal speak, Ziegler's study in contrasts reveals two women with a common bond of quiet determination and suppressed vulnerability: a bond forged as Grace teaches Glorie to pilot a maverick stove, and Glorie introduces Grace to the wonders of legal injunctions and lobster salad. It's a delicate balance, made all the more heartwarming by its imperfect results.

The chemistry between Jetti Ames (Grace) and Maedell Dixon (Gloria) never flags. These veteran actresses embody their characters beautifully, turning their scripted poise and city-country contradictions into a range of emotional, and ultimately hopeful, exchanges that are deeply touching. Some of their finest moments are their quietest ones, delivered by Aimes with shuffling feet and retiring sighs that belie her character's tenacious unwillingness to die.

Conversely, Dixon balances her role as outspoken sophisticate and country incompetent with just the right amount of brash insensitivity and desperate sincerity to make Glorie at once ridiculous and redeeming. In the narrow space between duty and despair a conversation develops between them -- about life, death, marriage and memory -- that leaves an indelible mark. And, just maybe, it brings the discourse of death back down to earth, where we can take a closer look at it.

Grace & Glorie continues through April 16 at the Invisible Theatre, 1400 N. First Ave. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday; and 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets are $16 and $18, and reservations are recommended. Call 882-9721.

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