CAT hits high note with Gladys in Wonderland

Central Alberta Theatre’s latest dinner theatre production, Gladys in Wonderland, offers that ideal mix of engaging comedy with just the perfect amount of insight and feeling.

Staged at the North Hill Quality Inn, shows run through to Feb. 6th.

Penned by Rosemary Frisino Toohey and directed by CAT veteran Erna Soderberg, the story focuses on an elderly lady by the name of Gladys. She’s 87 and she is comfortable in her own skin, with simple daily routines and lots of tasty donuts.

One day the Angel of Death shows up at her door – and announces it’s time for Gladys to ‘shuffle off her mortal coil’.

But Gladys isn’t in any hurry to head off to the hereafter – although the concept becomes more appealing as friends and family start dropping by. First we hear from her daughter Doris, wonderfully played by Pam Snowdon. She’s got an array of feelings about her mother, but is mostly caught up in a dizzying whirl of constant concern.

Doris worries about every aspect of her mom’s life, while Gladys ironically is living with hardly a worry.

But Doris’s perspective is mild compared to the stream of visitors yet to pop in. Doris’s uncle Frank barges in with a litany of concerns. Masterfully performed by Jeff Challoner, Frank doesn’t really talk to or with his sister – he talks ‘at’ her. Glimmers of condescension pop at almost every turn, and the scene rings only too true about how some seniors are often treated.

Next up is Dennis – an ultra annoying and painfully verbose ‘meals on wheels’ type guy. He chatters endlessly about dietary details till Gladys can barely handle it. Curtis Closson does a terrific job at nailing Dennis’s well-meaning but grating ‘presentation’. Later, Gladys, in an effort to perhaps keep the Angel of Death at bay just a bit longer, asks to visit a local nursing home, as some of her family has been considering this the best move for her.

Once there, she has a hilarious chat with Lillian (Dame Pamela Henshall) and Ethel (Lourdes (Lou) Trudgeon).

These ladies point out that staffers are like Kindergarten teachers, and its best just to be pretend to be out if it than to have to participate in a litany of mundane activities to pass the hours. Gladys knows that this is not the life for her.

Gladys is also ‘blessed’ with a visit from her best friend Mildred (Arlene Clark). Mildred starts right in on Gladys’s lack of planning for her death. But Gladys doesn’t want to dwell on all of that – and she’s baffled at her friend’s insensitivity. Clark is spot on as the funny but pushy Mildred – this woman has a huge heart but she means business – and it revolves around Gladys’s demise. Then Frank’s wife Myrna (played to perfection by Dru Christensen), who Gladys has never been a fan of, drops by and straightaway wants to wash everything from Gladys’s table cloth to her clothes. It’s all about tasks, duties, or what Gladys must need – whether she realizes it or not. Gladys’s niece Karen drops by with a similar ‘modus operandi’.

Gladys may be somewhat frail, but she’s still feisty and intelligent. The constant instructions are making what time she has left a disaster – and folks like Karen (the vibrant Stacey Palmer) – are making her final days unbearable.

Now this sounds heavy, but thanks to the sparkling script, there’s lots of laughs woven into the story. But there is plenty of truth here, too.

Elderly people don’t want to be spoken to like children or like they’ve lost the bulk of their intelligence. Their bodies might be more frail, but there remains the same person inside who deserves respect and to be treated as a mature individual. Obviously there are a span of health issues that can impact a person and how they need to be treated as they age. But all too often, elderly people are, like Gladys, talked ‘at’ or talked ‘over’.

Ultimately, Cynthia Edwards is simply fantastic in the role of Gladys – Edwards is of course nowhere near the age of her character, but she captures Gladys’s characteristics so very, very well – she’s utterly convincing in her portrayal not just of an older woman, but a woman who is coming to terms with the changing and often demeaning ways that she is being treated. Again, Edwards deserves loads of praise for crafting a character that we root for at every turn. Just outstanding. And Bob Greig is also super as the affable Angel of Death – he’s got a terrific way of delivering lines with an irresistible dry wit.

Of course, accolades must be given to Soderberg. A gifted actor in her own right, she shows more and more talent as a sensitive director as well. Every performance has been drawn out with care, and you can see Soderberg’s stamp all over the show – I can’t think of a better director to guide this show to fruition.

As mentioned, Gladys in Wonderland leave audiences with much to chew on long after the ‘curtain falls.’

For ticket and performance times, visit www.blackknightinn.ca.

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