Playwright Susan Miller takes a serious look at how women regard their aging with misgivings in “20th Century Blues.” There are comic touches too, but Miller sincerely approaches her women to let them have their say about their lives.
The catalyst is Polly Draper as Danny, a photographer in New York City, who addresses the audience in an introductory speech that sets the scene before the back story begins. Then Danny takes us into her plan to photograph her three woman friends to cap a series of photos that she has taken of them over 40 years. It would be a breakthrough exhibit for her at the Museum of Modern Art to show progression of women as they get older.
Now in their late fifties, the friends to be assembled in Danny’s apartment met in jail when they were arrested for being activists back in the days of political commitment and demonstrations. They are presently at various points in their respective lives, which have played out in different ways as time marched on.
There is Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Mac, a black journalist with whom Danny had a past lesbian fling. Ellen Parker plays Sil, a real estate broker who worries about her age showing in the intended photos. Kathryn Grody is Gabby, who is a veterinarian and very chatty.
A major problem develops when Danny asks the women to sign releases for their photos to be used in the exhibition. Sil, who feels the need to keep up appearances in her work, rebels, and suddenly Danny’s project faces derailment. In the process there is much talk about the consequences of aging. Danny applies pressure as she believes in her art project can make an important statement as well as advance her career.
The age question is emphasized with the appearance of Beth Dixon as Danny’s mother, Bess, who arrives with Danny’s son, Simon (Charles Socarides). Bess is sympathetically cheerful but in the throes of losing her memory. One of the funniest lines in the play occurs when Bess asks if she voted, and Danny assures her that she did. Bess then asks, “How is she doing?”
The play reflects women in the face of how they are unjustly regarded in society. The portraits are effective, as the cast members are all excellent in their delineation of what is happening in their lives. The writing is crisp, and yet there is insufficient drama to make the work more dynamic.
But what there is impresses, and one comes away with more awareness of what women go through and how they are affected by a society that prizes youth and beauty and instills fear of becoming over the hill. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-279-4200. Reviewed November 27, 2017.