Jennifer Childs, who launched the comedy troupe 1812 Productions in her 20s in 1997, recently turned 47. That’s not old, she acknowledges. But the milestone caused her to realize that half her life probably was over.
After the regrets, fear and panic set in, she says, she decided to create a show about aging. It may have started with a mid-life crisis but became more than that: an examination of the inevitability of death — and of ways to deal with what one of her friends calls the “downward slide” towards oblivion.
Simultaneously, the visual artist Ellensue Gross started painting portraits of aging women without makeup. All were in early-morning attire, some semi-nude. The subjects, in their 60s and 70s, were mostly friends of the artist. “Or they used to be my friends,” Gross says, “before they saw the paintings.” (To view samples, click here.)
Gross is joking, to be sure. The subject of aging cries out for comedy. That’s the best way to deal with the uncomfortable subject.
It’s what Childs has done as well. For her one-woman show, I Will Not Go Gently, she invented four aging women and brings them to life onstage. As they negotiate their moment in the air — when you must let go of one trapeze but haven’t yet grabbed on to another — she exaggerates their reactions for comic effect.
Sierra Mist is a fictitious 47-year-old rock star from the 1980s trying to make a comeback with a concert in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Back in the day, Sierra’s music embodied rebellion, but she’s labored in obscurity since she cut a disastrous 1999 album about the coming end of the world in Y2K.
Then there’s Abby, who was once Sierra’s Number One fan and is now a mother who hosts a 3 a.m. podcast because she can’t sleep through the night. When she sees Sierra perform, Abby is horrified: “She’s so old!” she wails, although she’s the same age as her former idol.
Slinking into obscurity
Childs also impersonates Daphne Thundergrass, a TV actress whose reign as the 1970s superhero Dyna-Woman was cancelled after two seasons. Now she’s made a new TV career as a self-help guru, showing viewers how to regain power in their lives.
Finally we meet Abby’s 90-year-old grandmother, who has tried to get back in the dating scene by utilizing websites that she has trouble comprehending. She also takes the mike at a standup comedy club and delivers some great one-liners.
All four of these women deal with the multiple problems that confront most of us in our later years, especially the critical question: Am I still relevant?
Sierra Mist’s rehearsal, press conference and performance before condescending journalists (not to mention her manager) become acid evocations of desperation. But Sierra doesn’t go gently, in the words of Dylan Thomas’s poem that provides the show’s title. When a critic describes her as slinking into obscurity, Sierra responds that she’s striding into obscurity! She faces the future kicking, screaming, and singing, “I will rage and fight.”
The older characters are nicely contrasted with Abby’s adolescent daughter, who simultaneously texts, tweets and Googles while talking on the phone with her friends and telling them how “lame” her mother is. “She’s always telling me how long it used to take to dial a number.” Childs is spot-on as this incarnation of today’s youth.
Throughout, Childs’s writing and Harriet Powers’s direction smoothly connect all of the characters with each other. Childs’s multiple talents for comedy, singing, and movement have never been better displayed in one evening.
Gross’s art and Childs’s performance came together at a reception hosted by June and Steve Wolfson. Both are supportive patrons of 1812 Productions and June is the subject of one of Gross's paintings.
Childs and guitarist/composer Christopher Colucci performed scenes from the play while Gross’s oils were displayed. Gross’s portrait of Childs will be unveiled at a future 1812 event.
To read another review by Naomi Orwin, click here.