In her 101 years on the planet, Lorene Jackson married twice, raised a child, enjoyed a successful career in real estate, and managed to live independently until her final months. Lorene Cary, her granddaughter and namesake, chronicles the extraordinary century of the woman she called “Nana” in Ladysitting, a tender exploration of care and caregiving, now receiving its world premiere at Arden Theatre Company. Through sharp storytelling and finely drawn characters, we come to learn the ins and outs of these two indomitable women, whose love for each other overcomes the indignities of age and uncertainty of hospice.
Adapted from Cary’s 2019 memoir of the same name, Ladysitting focuses on the events that led Nana (Trezana Beverley) to move from her home in West Collingswood, New Jersey, to the rectory where Lorene (Melanye Finister) and her husband Bob (David Ingram), a pastor, live in West Philadelphia. For a fiercely free-spirited woman who still drove herself across the Walt Whitman Bridge to her office well into her nineties, submitting to the role of patient is not an easy task. Nor is it pleasant for Lorene, who treasured her position as Nana’s beloved granddaughter when she was a child, to experience their shift in roles as she becomes the decision-maker and adult in the room.
Lorene, Bob, and their daughter Zoë (Monet DeBose, an adult actor who convincingly plays a pre-teen) slowly acclimate to the world of oxygen tanks, commodes, and hospital beds. Cary evocatively portrays the changing dynamics of the family. Refreshingly, the script lacks sentimentality — there’s not a whiff of Tuesdays With Morrie schmaltziness to be found. Nana remains stubborn, ornery, and sometimes downright disagreeable to her last breath, fighting against the ones who love her the most. In turn, Lorene doesn’t let herself off the hook when she acknowledges that her life would be easier if Nana wasn’t so resilient, if her end came more swiftly.
Under Zuhairah McGill’s direction, Beverley and Finister perfectly embody these strong-willed women. Though largely confined to a bed in the center of Brian Sidney Bembridge’s airy set, Beverley effectively uses her expressive face and honeyed voice to convey Nana’s complicated personality. She can be girlish and sweet one moment, then spit venom the next. Although Cary doesn’t provide all the backstory that she offers in the memoir — no one could in 90 intermissionless minutes — the audience can sense that Nana’s mercurial spirit owes much to her rewarding but difficult life: displacement and the death of her mother in youth, a disappointing marriage to a man who left her in debt, and the general struggle to survive as a Black woman in America.
Finister leans into the soft edges of Lorene’s assured sense of self. She shows how someone who does not view herself as a natural caregiver can learn to live with the role, and to even occasionally love it. Finister and Ingram, who are a real-life couple, have an easy, believable rapport, though it might have been nice for the script to focus a touch more on how Nana’s needs affect Lorene and Bob’s marriage.
The wonderful Brian Anthony Wilson plays a character called the Angel of Life & Death, who pops onto the scene occasionally, seemingly to prepare Nana for her crossover. The device feels a touch heavy-handed in a work that is otherwise grounded in realism, perhaps because it comes and goes with long stretches in between. Wilson also appears on the periphery of scenes as Nana’s late father, a spectral figure without much to do. Cary might want to better integrate this fantastical element into the fabric of the play for future productions.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Nana’s century eventually comes to a close, leaving Lorene and her family to resume their regular lives while still carrying the knowledge they gained during her care. That part of the story doesn’t make it to the stage in Ladysitting, but we leave feeling, without a doubt, the impact of love and service on life. Like Nana Jackson herself, the play is wry, witty, and occasionally confounding; it’s good company even in the most trying of times.