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Clockwise from top left: Nina Fine, Michelle Palmer,
Joyce Griffen, and Nicole Cosby in Hospice
(Photo: Tom Bloom)
For its latest effort, The Aulis Collective for Theatre and Media has chosen to stage the Audelco Award-winning Hospice, which originally played Off-Broadway at Woodie King Jr.'s New Federal Theatre. Pearl Cleage's two-woman play is thin, but it has a great premise: A 30-year old, unmarried, African-American writer goes back to her grandmother's home to spend the last days of her pregnancy, only to learn that her estranged mother, suffering from cancer, has decided to make the same pilgrimage and intends to live out the end of her life in the old house. The play dramatizes one morning in which mother and daughter confront past resentments and present pain as they contemplate what the future might hold.

Hospice is an uneven drama. The women's rehashing of the past is intriguing at times, given the mother's fascinating history: She abandoned her Civil Rights activist husband and 10-year-old daughter, Jenny, to go to Paris, where she became a celebrated poet. But mother Alice is reluctant to talk about her true feelings, her motivations, and even her poetry, so the pair's idle talk soon grows tiring. Their confrontations are more interesting, since the cantankerous Alice doesn't pull punches; and, when the women do come to something resembling a reconciliation, it feels earned. Though Cleage's dialogue is often unremarkable and even dull, it does offer up subtle, well-phrased bits of truth when least expected.

Like the play itself, Bernice Rohret's direction never strikes a balance. The beginning of the action, with Alice pulling her wracked body out of bed while Jenny putters on her typewriter downstairs, is staged at a painfully slow pace. This might have been an engaging way to start things off--except that, by this point, we have already spent some 15 or 20 minutes watching two (very accomplished) women performing a chunk of Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly.

Yes, you read that correctly. Because the use of live music in performance is a part of Aulis' mission, and because the two pieces are thematically linked, Rohret has decided to interweave Cleage's drama with bits of Butterfly. It's nice to hear some live Puccini but, though the "Flower Duet" is lovely, it isn't appropriate to prelude this play with two opera singers, in full Japanese costume, singing in Italian. The image of Butterfly happily preparing and waiting (and waiting, and waiting) for her seafaring lover Lieutenant Pinkerton's return may be intended to evoke the feeling that Jenny has been having these 20 years as she has waited for her mother to return, but Rohret is unable to make the two very different theater pieces fit in a way that makes sense both intellectually and emotionally.

Much of Hospice works as well as it does thanks to the two stars. Joyce Griffen is believable as the uncompromising and selfish Alice, only allowing her deepest feelings to show--and even then, just barely--in the rare moments when she is off her guard. Nicole Cosby is equally good as Jenny, a woman of unfailing kindness and patience who continues to gently coax information from her prodigal mother, knowing full well that the questions will only unleash her wrath.

The production's live music, composed and played wonderfully on the piano by Joel Wizansky, is a treat. It's exciting to see a theater company try the experiment of mixing grand opera with kitchen sink drama, and it's unfortunate that the experiment isn't successful.

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