‘Sundays’ hits close to home

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In “A Month of Sundays,” playing at The Public Theatre, nursing home residents who have completely lost their minds are called “zombies,” caregivers are more in touch with residents than family members and folks who live there face the inevitable chill that they might lose control of their bladders and their minds.

While hardly a lighthearted subject, Bob Larbey’s script and Christopher Schario’s astute directing make the best of this “more drama than comedy” play that confronts our fears of growing old and not being able to care for ourselves.

The show centers on Cooper (Stephen Bradbury), a somewhat caustic widower confined to an upscale rest home so as not to be a burden to his family. The play explores Cooper’s relationship with his daughter and son-in-law (Natalie Rose Liberace and Michael Hardart), the rest-home staff, Nurse Wilson (Sarah Koestner); the housekeeper, Mrs. Baker (Colleen Mahan); and his best friend at the home, Aylott (Warren Hammack), who’s physically able but rapidly losing his mental faculties.

For the most part, the show is recycled material from myriad scripts from stage and screen. We’re well familiar with the antics of “dirty old men” trading barbs with young nurses, making references to sexual encounters that are now fond memories and waxing eloquently about how there’s nothing particularly golden about the “golden years.”

However, with a wonderfully talented cast, “A Month of Sundays” somehow manages to infuse new life to these recycled themes. And while confronted with real-life situations that can be frightening and tragic (ask anyone who has a family member in a nursing home), the show manages to put a positive spin on such things as the onset of memory loss, advanced stages of dementia and incontinence.

Key to the show’s success is Bradbury, who as the rest-home resident Cooper, is always on stage keeping the production on pace and driving home every theme and nuance. Hammack, as his best friend, also provides warm, inspiring scenes as the two confront fading memories and the prospect of losing their lives as they know them. Bradbury and Hammack are masters of stage timing, knowing exactly the right moments to push for humor or pull for drama.

As yuppie stereotypes, Liberace and Hardart are strong in their portrayal of family members uneasy with a relative in a nursing home. Their visits to the home are infrequent – the first Sunday of every month – and labored, as conversation is contrived and feelings are awkward.

In wonderful contrast, Koestner as the nurse and Mahan as the housekeeper show how caregivers in a rest home can have more insight, camaraderie and connection with a resident than family members. There’s a genuine warmth when Koestner’s character announces her wedding plans to Cooper even before she tells her real parents and there’s an unusual kindness when Cooper offers Mahan’s housekeeper character a bottle of whisky as a gift for her father.

Koestner is solid in her role as the nurse, though I found some of her scenes a bit contrived – the smiles looked fake and the tears a bit too forced. Mahan, known in local theater circles, makes a great Public Theatre debut with a memorable character.

Set designer Stan Spilecki creates a powerful single stage setting for the rest home that looks more spacious and elegant than any rest home that I’ve ever seen. Bart Garvey’s lighting design effectively covers a variety of moods and tones.

If there’s any difficulty with this show, it is that Larbey’s script hits awfully close to home for some audience members. My father is 87 years old and in a rest home. In Cooper’s world he would be one of the zombies, those that have lost all consciousness of the real world.

It is no surprise that there are moments in the show that are hauntingly real and difficult to watch. But Larbey’s words and Schario’s directing clearly show there’s humor to be found in even the direst of situations.

“A Month of Sundays” will leave you emotionally drained but thankful for the experience.

Dan Marois is an actor, writer, and producer and owner of Main Street Entertainment and Mystery for Hire. He can be reached at dmarois@fairpoint.net.

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