In Tina Howe’s very slight, nursing home escapism epic, Chasing Manet, which is now playing at Primary Stages, we are supposed to suspend our belief of real people doing real things. These characters are not real. They are allegorical figures – representing the idea of escaping – the idea that if you want to get out of any said situation there is a means and that you should go for it as life is all too short, especially if you are in a nursing home where old people are sent to die.
Anyone who has had anyone close who has had to be admitted into a nursing home will find this play to be totally implausible.
In the painting by Manet, Dejuner sur l’Herbe, which hangs over the bed of legally blind patient Catherine Sargent (a relative of that Sargent and a painter herself) played by Jane Alexander, in Room 312 of the Mount Airy Nursing Home in Riverdale – the naked woman sitting at lunch with fully clothed men is not about her nakedness but about how Manet wanted to paint an “imagined event” as a statement of “individual freedom” as explained by Catherine.
Freedom. To escape. To get out. That is the mantra of Catherine. Upon the death of her roommate she quickly gets another. A nice Jewish lady – Rennie Waltzer – who suffers from dementia (Lynn Cohen) and as strange as it may seem these two bond. I couldn’t accept the situation. In a nursing home people with dementia and Alzheimer’s are kept apart from other patients. These two women would never have been put in the same quarters. Ever. I know. First hand.
Accepting that premise, Catherine plots for them to set a little fire so that they can escape and board the QE2 to go to Paris, one last time. But Rennie, who keeps referencing her dead husband, needs to get her passport. That’s the crux of it.
In between we meet Catherine’s only son Royal (Jack Gilpin) – she was probably too selfish to have any more children – who hasn’t amounted to much in his mother’s estimation – he’s a teacher and writing a book on Yeats and this goes nowhere as he has to play some other characters. The hospital, that Rennie thinks is a hotel (much of the humor depends on her mixing up words and their meanings) is populated by patients that have the dreaded Alzheimer’s disease. Ms. Howe gets them tragically and sometimes amusingly correct.
Julie Halston, David Margulies, Rob Riley and Vanessa Aspillaga play a slew of characters that try desperately to keep this story afloat under the insipid direction of Michael Wilson. It slowly sinks despite its uplifting ending.