Hospice, history, and honesty

Arden Theatre Company presents Lorene Cary’s Ladysitting

3 minute read
Beverly, an aged Black woman, lies in a hospital bed, talking to Finister beside her, who smiles & wears a blue cardigan.
Stellar performances: Trezana Beverley (left) as Nana and Melanye Finister as Lorene in the Arden’s ‘Ladysitting.’ (Photo by Wide Eyed Studios.)

In Ladysitting, now getting its world premiere at the Arden, 99-year-old Nana, who has always gotten by proudly and independently, is deeply unhappy to need full-time help. The family—Lorene, husband Bob, and teenage daughter Zoë—add Nana’s care to their already busy lives, but they are not the only ones attending her.

Acclaimed Philadelphia writer and professor Lorene Cary based this play on her 2019 memoir, Ladysitting: My Year with Nana at the End of her Century. Although the drama is centered on Nana’s decline, the family’s loyalty, love, and ebullience make for riveting theater that is honest but not too heavy, with deft direction by Zuhairah McGill.

Life and death at the rectory

The play’s first lines, delivered by Melanye Finister as Lorene, come straight from one of her character’s greatest childhood wounds. Finister handles the complex role with aplomb and steps nimbly between exposition and action, particularly as Nana’s decline accelerates. As Nana, Trezana Beverley is stellar, bouncing from humor to fear, anger, and paranoia, and back again—a lot to convey from a bed.

Among the five characters, Ladysitting’s Lorene and Nana are rarely offstage during the 90-minute runtime. The supporting cast is excellent. As Lorene’s husband, rector of the Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany, David Ingram comes across as utterly dependable. Monet Debose is luminous and nuanced in the role of their daughter; Brian Anthony Wilson brings a gentle authority as Angel of Life and Death, a series of variously costumed phantasms.

The unassuming set, designed by Brian Sidney Bembridge, is divided into bland rectory spaces at each side, with Nana’s bedroom at center. Three hanging windows form the backdrop, allowing the Angel of Life and Death to appear onstage from behind, hovering, visible to the audience and sometimes to Nana. The Angel visits in many guises, and costume designer Leigh Paradise helps us see him through Nana’s eyes: as her father, son, or the abstract roles of “death” and “life.”

Holding history aloft

In Cary’s memoir, the arc toward Nana’s inevitable death is enlivened by gorgeous prose and stories about her family’s great achievements, disappointments, secrets, and feuds. As American people of color, they’re unsafe, striving, exhausted. Most of these stories were stripped away for the stage, but the importance of this heritage is made known. At one point, the Angel character tells Nana, “I could have brought you the first anti-lynching bill, but you wanted a doll.” Later, Nana says to Lorene, “Papa was here!” (Cary’s great-grandfather served as secretary to Congressman George Henry White, whose anti-lynching bill was quashed in 1900 by southern Democrats.) In another scene, Lorene helps Nana fill out her mail-in ballot to vote for “our young man” (then-Senator Barack Obama). Nana points out that she hasn’t voted for 50 years and never voted for a Democrat. An enormous amount of significant American history is held aloft in these scenes.

This is Cary’s second play. Her first, My General Tubman, premiered at the Arden in 2020. On opening night, Ladysitting didn’t feel entirely cohesive; the lighting (Thom Weaver) and sound (Jairous L. Parker) were a touch obtrusive. Once the production gels, however, the play’s only flaw will be an abrupt ending, which a few more lines might balance. I highly recommend Ladysitting.

What, When, Where

Ladysitting. By Lorene Cary, directed by Zuhairah McGill. $33-$63. Through March 10, 2024, at the Arden Theatre Company, 40 N 2nd Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1122 or ardentheatre.org.


The Arden is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Performances of Ladysitting on Friday, February 9, at 7pm, and Saturday, February 10, at 2pm, will be open-captioned and audio-described.

Masks are optional but strongly encouraged.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation