“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” - William Blake
by Michael Sarko
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Holding a second job to make ends meet is a fact of life for most actors. Performer and playwright Mark Cherniak spent his early stage days paying the rent by working in assisted living centers, retirement homes, and nursing care facilities. After 15 years in the care industry, Cherniak felt compelled to write a one-man show about the people who live in such places and the issues they face, especially in tough economic times. That show, “Jalopies,” is currently in the middle of a short run at the Richard Hugo House black box theater.
“Jalopies” is an uneven show, but one that has a genuinely moving story beneath some initial layers of questionable design. It takes place almost entirely at the fictional Ballard Court retirement home in Seattle, a place populated by elderly people who run the gamut from believable characters to one-dimensional weirdos. Perhaps Cherniak’s most baffling decision is to make a frequently disappearing and mostly unnecessary narrator out of Ray, a spry, down-to-earth New Yorker who is spending his twilight years at Ballard Court. If a genial sort with especially round Brooklyn vowels isn’t a cliché of one-man shows, it certainly feels like one.
Ray pops in and out of the story as necessary, serving mostly as a means to introduce his colorful neighbors. Cherniak adopts particular poses and manners of speech to indicate each character, but it’s easy to get confused in the early part of the show when the audience is asked to tell the difference between several, nearly identical people leaning on walkers or bound to wheelchairs.
In time, the narration fades and the most distinct characters come to the foreground. At its best, “Jalopies” focuses on the relationships between pairs of its most rounded figures. On the more endearing end of the spectrum, audiences watch a friendship form between a former long-distance runner named Hank and a French expatriate named Maurice. In his old age, Hank can barely walk and has gone blind, while Maurice is fast approaching his first triple-digit birthday. In their friendship, Hank’s bitterness softens and Maurice’s loneliness is sated, if only temporarily.
The most moving and realistic thread in the play is the endangered relationship between Esther and Peter, a couple celebrating their 65th year of marriage. Esther still has her wits about her, but Peter is struggling with physical frailty and severely reduced mental faculties. Cherniak really sells Esther’s sad tenderness and Peter’s stiff confusion while filling in their backstory with nicely detailed recollections of their teenage elopement.
The last vital pair in “Jalopies” is forever-nurturing Esther and new arrival Sylvia, a 55-year-old woman who makes her anger and frustration known in thick sarcasm and allusions to suicide. Sylvia is easily 20 years younger than the next-youngest resident at Ballard Court, crippled by a massive stroke and abandoned by her husband. For Sylvia, Cherniak adopts a stiff sitting position and projects her dialogue through only the right side of his mouth. It’s a part that walks a tightrope between shock caricature and necessary shit-stirrer more successfully than expected.
All of these relationships are either forged or threatened when a large corporation takes over the management of Ballard Court, installing a director who uses the language of cooperation to implement insensitive and often harmful policies. He divides residents based on how much care they require and makes a concerted effort to evict the most needy to nursing homes. Thankfully, Cherniak makes this profit-driven whippersnapper far from a mustache-twirling cartoon villain. He’s not especially sympathetic, though his actions are based on a consistent philosophy of care that is focused on structure rather the softer (if more chaotic) approach his residents prefer.
The back half of “Jalopies” is considerably stronger than its busy, confusing start. The relationships between the three central pairs are uniformly moving and well written. They also serve as a good conversation-starter about the laws and ethics of elderly care. After the show, Mark Cherniak makes himself available for a Question and Answer session about the play, his experience as a care worker, and the issues discussed in “Jalopies.” He also provides a small reading packet about the legal concerns of assisted living and nursing facilities.
It is clear that “Jalopies” is a personal work of activism for Mark Cherniak. It’s not a perfect play or an especially thrilling night of entertainment, but it’s compelling where it needs to be and it does a lot with a black box and a bit of movable scenery. The Hugo House is hosting the show for two more weekends, running Jan. 11 and 12, then again on Jan. 18, 19, and 20.