by Julia Doerr
“But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingéd chariot drawing near.”
from To His Coy Mistress, by Andrew Marvell
Friday evening, I enjoyed a performance of a comedy, Elaine Liner’s Finishing School, at the Lincoln Community Playhouse. It is very genuinely comical, with lots of laughs for the audience, especially for those of us long enough in the tooth to appreciate the frustrations of growing older and willing to find the humor in them. And yet, the script of this play never fails to remind us that those frustrations are real, often painful, and sometimes very scary. Although Marvell’s lines (above) were never quoted in the play, I found them echoing in my English-major mind several times during the performance. Fortunately, this underlying darkness in Liner’s play does not detract from the comedy but rather enriches it. The clever meaning of the title is part of that enrichment (and will be explained if you attend).
Finishing School is set at an assisted living facility, or rather, just outside it on a bench frequented by two of its residents, Al and Wizzer. Al is the younger of the two characters, and one wonders a bit why this man really needs to be in assisted living, but he eventually reveals his story. Actor Brian Foley plays the part well, bringing out the bitterness in Al’s sharp-bladed but appealing humor. Al is bored and restless and clearly lonely. He has cultivated one friendship in the eight months of his residence at the facility. That is with Wizzer, who is significantly older and confined to a wheelchair. Wizzer is played by Bruce Hahn, who is excellent in the role. Wizzer’s health problems include narcolepsy and memory lapses, which are sometimes hilarious and sometimes excruciating. Both characters, but especially Wizzer, live in fear of being placed in The Cave, their nickname for the memory care unit, which they see as a fate worse than death.
Enter two females. The first, Minnie, is the 30-something daughter of a recently deceased resident. Al and Wizzer encounter her sitting on “their” bench one morning. They are charmed by her pretty face, her red hair, and her youth, but they feel the generation gap between them. Something close to flirtation occurs, but the age difference is too great, even though Wizzer encourages Al to “go for it” by asking Minnie out. On the other hand, when Al later meets Minnie’s mother, who shares her prettiness and her red hair, there is suddenly a more age-appropriate alternative. The question is, will Al go for it? Allison Handke and Diane Gonzolas play Minnie and Shirley to good effect.
It’s interesting that the action never goes inside the assisted living facility. We hear about what it’s like: Al describes it as “a Soviet gulag with cupcakes.” A few of the staff members and other residents are discussed so we have vivid pictures of them in our minds. And the “Voiceover,” an invisible character voiced by Katy Morehouse, is both funny and horrifying as she announces the activities available each day. But we are spared a real look inside, at the banality of the life there and at the occasional humiliations suffered as residents are faced with the realities of growing older. Wizzer’s description of a memory test he fails is especially poignant, but we are always outside. Make of that what you will.
Finally, though, the play ends on an upbeat note. There is a birthday party, a gift that increases Wizzer’s freedom, and a promising new beginning for Al. You’ll leave happy and fairly early. The performance ends by about 9:15. That may be past the usual bedtime at the play’s assisted living facility, but it will probably get you home in plenty of time to make yours.
If you go: The Lincoln Community Playhouse is located at 2500 S. 56th St. in Lincoln, NE. Remaining performances include: evening performances on January 26th and February 2 at 7:30pm, matinees on January 27 and February 3 at 2:00pm.
Get your tickets now online or by calling the box office at (402) 489-7529.
Julia Doerr is a retired high school English teacher with a lifelong love of plays, both as literature and performance. She assisted, as dramaturg, with the direction of several Shakespeare plays during her tenure at Lincoln High School, where she spent 27 of her 33 years teaching. Julia loves to attend the theater, to write, and to share her opinions. That makes writing reviews her dream assignment.