Fiona Gallagher and Judith Roberts in Close Ties
(© Zack Brown)
Fiona Gallagher and Judith Roberts in Close Ties
(© Zack Brown)
Should Grandma be sent off to a nursing home? That's the question at the center of Elizabeth Diggs' poignant family drama, Close Ties, now at the Ensemble Studio Theatre. And while it takes a little too much stage time to produce the answer, the complex emotions the play evokes are nicely rendered by a strong cast, under the direction of Pamela Berlin.

In the play, 84-year-old matriarch Josephine (Judith Roberts) is going senile. She holds conversations with her dead husband, and her memory lapses and obsessive behavior are beginning to both annoy and scare her family. Her daughter Bess (Carole Monferdini) believes it's her duty to care for her mother herself, but Bess' husband Watson (Jack Davidson) is reluctant to take her into their home. Bess' three adult daughters Anna (Polly Lee), Evelyn (Fiona Gallagher), and Connie (Julie Fitzpatrick) are not in a position to care for Josephine, and even though teenager Thayer (David Gelles Hurwitz) volunteers to drop out of high school to live with Grandma, that's not a practical solution.

Complicating matters are the intense rivalries and grudges that a number of the family members hold against each other. Bess is convinced her mother doesn't even like her, although she's done everything she can to please her. Evelyn is openly hostile to Bess, and while she at first seems to consider Anna a close confidant, this quickly turns to jealousy when she thinks Anna is putting the moves on Evelyn's new boyfriend Ira (Tommy Schrider). Connie's efforts to diffuse the situation between her sisters only results in both of them making fun of her.

The action is character-driven and the dialogue naturalistic, but unfortunately, not everything works. When Connie finally does lash out against Evelyn's meanness, it comes across as forced and inorganic. The inclusion of Ira helps to facilitate the revelation of important expository information, but his character seems too good to be true, and when Evelyn tearfully asks why he likes her, the audience is forced to wonder the same.This is partially because Gallagher commits so fully to her role that Evelyn often comes across as mentally unhinged, acting out for both real and imagined wrongs done to her, while directing her primary fury against herself. Lee and Schrider also strike just the right note of flirtatious camaraderie to make Evelyn's fears at least plausible.

Roberts nicely captures Josephine's anxieties, as well as her fits of temper; a scene in which she begins emptying out drawers onto the kitchen floor is positively riveting and somewhat scary. Monferdini does the most subtle work, as Bess wrestles with impossible decisions while trying her best to make everything run smoothly. The remaining cast members have less stage time, but do well enough with what they're given.

Michael Schweikardt's set depicts a nicely detailed country kitchen, complete with working stove and sink. And just a warning for those entering the show on an empty stomach: the cast consumes a great variety of food stuffs over the course of the two-hour-and-ten-minute play, including muffins, salad, cereal, berries, pretzels, toast, eggs, and bacon! The smell of the latter pervades the house at the beginning of the second act, making the play a literally mouth-watering experience.