Where: Northlight Theatre, North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie
When: through Oct. 21
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Put a cranky, irreverent old character on stage, and he’s likely to be a hit. If he’s played by Mike Nussbaum, at 94 the oldest actor still treading the boards according to Actors’ Equity Association, it’s virtually a sure thing.
That’s certainly the case with Rachel Bonds’ “Curve of Departure” at Northlight Theatre, a 75-minute one act sensitively directed by artistic director BJ Jones. Nussbaum plays Rudy, a feisty grandfather suffering from incontinence and encroaching dementia, and he seems to be having such a ball doing it that we’re only intermittently aware that he is failing physically and mentally.
We first see Rudy in an airport motel room near Santa Fe, New Mexico, sitting on one of the two beds watching terrible tabloid tv. Nearby, Linda (Penelope Walker) is ironing his suit, and they have the playful argumentative rapport of people who have known each other a long time.
As it turns out, Linda, who is black, is the daughter-in-law of Rudy, a white Jewish New Yorker. They’ve come to New Mexico for the funeral of Cyrus, her ex-husband and the son he calls a “schmuck” partly for abandoning them for a new family. They’re waiting for Rudy’s grandson, Linda and Cyrus’ son Felix (Sean Parris), who soon arrives with his boyfriend, Jackson (Danny Martinez).
Cooped up overnight in the motel room—which in Lauren Nigri’s design feels bigger and less claustrophobic than it should—these four everyday people in stressful circumstances engage in alternately awkward and revealing conversations that show them to be basically caring and compassionate, qualities that are needed in greater supply nowadays.
Bonds crafts complicated characters we can care about and puts them in real-life situations that test their behavior. What she doesn’t do, unfortunately, is create a compelling plot or narrative to leave us with a satisfying ending or catharsis. Since Jones’ direction avoids the melodrama in favor of a dose of humor, we sense that maybe this is what life is like, but at the same time we want something more.
Linda is the lynchpin, and Walker brings winning complexity and complete sincerity to the role. Even though she’s been divorced from his son for years, she’s chosen to be Rudy’s caregiver, helping him to the bathroom when needed, coaxing him back to reality when his mind strays. She’s even contemplating giving up her teaching job as he needs more attention, something he’s adamantly against, planning assisted suicide instead.
As a mother, Linda has no problems with Felix’s homosexuality but she does worry that he doesn’t know much about his new boyfriend, who works part time in a coffee shop, and might be taken
advantage of financially. She also intuits that something is off between them.
At the same time, she likes Jackson, and when she learns what the issue is, she realizes that he is a really good person and encourages him to do the right thing whatever it takes. As we find out through whispered arguments and telephone calls back to Los Angeles, he’s temporarily rescued his young niece from her abusive father and his own drug-addicted sister, and now he wants to adopt her to keep her out of the foster care system, This is putting a severe strain on his relationship with Felix, who is reluctant to undertake the responsibility and fears abandoning his lover as he was abandoned by his father.
Parris does a good job of conveying Felix’s nervousness, pent-up anger, and angst, but he’s somewhat underwritten and at times doesn’t quite connect with Martinez’s tattooed Jackson, who comes from the wrong side of the tracks but comes across as almost saintly in his commitment to both his niece and Felix.
In truth, the others tend to fade into the background when Nussbaum’s Rudy takes center stage. He also has the play’s two best speeches. Like many an old person, he repeatedly relives key incidents from his past, and after reminiscing to Felix about taking him to New York for the first time and his own childhood with nine people in a small apartment there, he delivers a love letter to the city that’s bound to touch anyone who’s ever lived there. And then, for a coda on the motel room’s patio before the four go off to the funeral, he salutes the rising sun and “ragtag little group of humans” with an emotional reverie on the meaning of life, death, and love. Sure, it’s sentimental, but moving nonetheless.