Age Onstage

Getting Specific About Age in subUrbia and Hot Flash!


How old are you? Chances are this isn't the first time you've been asked that question, and chances are it won't be the last. Age is something our society is extremely keen on keeping track of. We like to use certain ages as mileage markers in the great road trip of life, so we can gauge how far we've come ("Welcome to 13, the proud home of Rebellious Adolescence!") and how far we have to go ("Only eight more years to Legal Drinking Age!"). We worry a great deal about age, concocting code phrases to serve as stern warnings of the dangers of some ages ("Never trust anyone over 30!") or soothing reassurances that all will still be well after we pass some particularly daunting marker ("Life Begins at 40!", "Fifty Is Nifty!"). And the pundits and politicians among us delight in grouping the citizenry according to age, attempting in the process to divine the prevailing nature in American society by talkin' 'bout our g-g-generations. There's the stalwart, self-sacrificing Depression/wartime generation, the oft-mocked, do-your-own-thing baby boomer generation, and, grousing in their shadow, the slackerly Generation X.

Given our fixation on age, you'd figure that our theatre -- whose purpose, after all, is "to hold as `twere a mirror up to Nature" -- would be crowded with characters carrying on about their birthdays piling up, bemoaning their graying hairs and spreading middles, agonizing over their failure to have found a spouse or had a baby or snagged that key to the executive washroom by such-and-such an age, railing about the way no one pays attention to you once you've reached a certain age, or, on the other hand, railing about the way no one pays attention to you because you've not yet reached a certain age. But the fact is, you'll find relatively few such characters on our stages.

Most of the time, dramas just aren't too attentive to the whole age thing. Yes, Shakespeare tackles it quite explicitly in his famous "Seven Ages of Man" speech from As You Like It, and from the Greeks on, we have an abundance of plays roiling with conflict between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, but this is generally generic generational friction -- that is, it's about parents and kids, and it doesn't really matter if the old folks are 40 and the young'uns are 15 or they're 65 and 40, that tension will always be there. In fact, generic pretty well sums up the majority approach to age in theatre: characters are, well, they're adults, and let's leave it at that, shall we? It doesn't matter all that much in the big dramatic scheme of things if Mr. and Mrs. Macbeth are in their late 20s or early 40s, or, for that matter, if he's in his late 20s and she's in her early 40s. That's not what the play is about, and you can say that about the bulk of the plays out there. Of the 240-odd plays staged locally last year, fewer than a dozen dealt with age in anything but the standard fuzzy manner.

That makes this week something extraordinary because two current productions on our stages deal explicitly with issues of age. At Planet Theatre, The Company is producing Eric Bogosian's subUrbia, which focuses on a group of youth who are struggling with their suburban upbringing and the prospect of adulthood in the Nineties. And at Hyde Park Theatre, Heloise Gold and C. K. McFarland are premiering their collaboration, Hot Flash!, a comic look at two women facing middle age in a culture obsessed with youth. Both introduce us to characters whose dramatic dilemmas are intimately bound up together with being a particular age in this particular society at this particular point in time.

For the gals in Hot Flash!, that age is the far side of 40, a time when women must contend not only with the multiplying wrinkles and graying follicles and relentless pull of gravity that men do, but also with a body undergoing major physical changes as it moves beyond childbearing capabilities. Menopause is its own wild challenge in the aging process, one that can throw all kinds of intense white-knuckle curves into aging's already long and winding road. It's an indisputable passage out of youth, and in a country which places a high premium on youth and sexuality, it can feel like a passage to oblivion.

"I'm in my middle 40s, and those things are starting to be issues for me," says Heloise Gold, a pioneer in Austin's alternative dance community and a shining comedic presence, as evidenced in such productions as Maggs: The 10,000-Year-Old Woman and Divine Lunacy. She had an idea for a show that would tackle some of these issues head on and asked C. K. McFarland, another longtime local stage artist and gifted comic actor (In the West, Earth Angels, The Cow Pattys), about doing it with her. McFarland was game, and before long, the two had created their "comic coming of age tragedy."

Hot Flash!

That "comic" business is very important to the two. "First of all, it's a farce," stresses Gold. "It's a big comedy about the whole aging process, becoming middle age and suddenly thinking about aging, and also making fun of our whole youth-obsessed culture. We address the issues of aging -- we make light of them, but we address them as real issues. We defy the stereotypes of aging, especially for women. We have these funny little conversations, and we take naps, and we go out and change the world in these amazing ways -- like housing every homeless person -- then we come back and have tea."

For McFarland and Gold, the point isn't so much to make some ultimate peace with getting older, but simply to say, "This is just the way it is." Your body does change and you do get tired easier and you may have to watch your health a little more, but you can still be beautiful and you can still be sexual and you can hold onto your dreams and, perhaps most importantly, you can still make a difference in the world. "For women who are starting to go through menopause, it's going to hit home," Gold says, "and it's going to open up an issue thats been taboo to talk about." But the fact that it speaks directly to women of a certain age makes it in no way exclusive as a work. Gold believes Hot Flash! has an appeal for a wider audience. After all, we're all getting older in some way or another, and so is everyone we know.

When Karen Carver-Sneed was asked by The Company to direct its production of subUrbia, she says, "I was excited because it was The Company, and I know they do good work. Then I got about two or three pages into the script, and I thought, `Oh no! A play about youth.' Then I got a few more pages into it, and I thought, `Oh no! A play about disillusioned youth.' Then I got a few more pages into it and I thought, `Oh no! A play about disillusioned, disenfranchised youth.'" Had she stopped there, Carver-Sneed might never have signed on to the project, but the director pressed on, and about 22 or 28 pages into it -- "It seems to hit everybody at about the same place," she notes -- Carver-Sneed realized there was more to the script than an easy label about that cynical Generation... you know. There was sharp writing, incisive insights into not only the youth of today but the adults who have helped create the youth of today,

"There's more of an edge, more danger to being a kid now," she observes, "and this group [in subUrbia] has all this fear and anger. They tear one another apart. When the chips are down, they hurt one another; they hurt the people closest to them. But then you see that they talk a lot about the lack of love in their homes, the way their parents argue and criticize. That's the thing: everybody does that now -- young people, older adults -- and it just continues that cycle of angst and fear."

Carver-Sneed did agree to direct the show, and she says now that she's glad she did. "Now I think it fell into my lap by God's good graces. As I move into middle age, I find I have some of the same attitudes as other adults. When I started working on this, I pretty much thought, `Kids today, they're crazy.' I hated the main character when I started. But now I find myself agreeing with him. I find myself identifying with the lead characters. I see that it's just the same as I was at that age."

The production has the potential, then, to offer something to both the young people who see it -- their lives reflected onstage -- and the people older than the protagonists -- a glimpse into the lives of today's youth and perhaps a reflection of their own. And based on her own observations opening weekend, Carver-Sneed believes the show is reaching both audiences. "My little cousin said, `I know these people, they go to my high school.' And we had nice audiences of both older and younger people. I did notice that some of the younger people did not laugh as much as the older people. I'm not sure why, but I know there was none of that restlessness or scooting around in their seats." They were engaged in the play.

That's what we look for in the theatre: plays that can engage audiences on some level, whether it's issues of age or independence or morals. But age is worth attending to on the rare occasions that it is discussed onstage. Aging, like birth and the inevitability of death, is something we all share. Insights into where we've been and, god willing, where we're going, not only ease our own journey, they bind us to the millions and millions of other travelers on their own great road trips. Don't imagine that a play about menopausal women or one about disillusioned, disenfranchised youth has nothing to say to you if you're not covering that same stretch of road. It does. It's like Carver-Sneed says of subUrbia, "If I could get next to it, I think anybody could. Now I sound like a couple of the characters: `I'm just tryin' to reach out to another naked human, man.'" That's it.

subUrbia runs through Apr 19 at Planet Theatre, 2307 Manor Rd. Hot Flash! runs through Apr 19 at Hyde Park Theatre, 511 W. 43rd. Call 454-TIXS for info on either show.

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