In Susan Miller’s relatable 2016 dramedy 20th Century Blues, pleasantly presented in its regional premiere by Young at Heart Players at Actor’s Theatre of Fairborn, four close-knit baby boomers look back on 40 years of friendship with humor and poignancy while holding steadfast to the future with hope and resilience.
Gathering once a year for a ritual photo shoot, Danny (Heather Martin), Sil (Pam McGinnis), Mac (Gail Andrews Turner), and Gabby (Jackie Pfeifer) are eager to reunite, but Danny’s desire to turn their private tradition into a public exhibition for New York’s Museum of Modern Art stirs skepticism and debate. Motives are questioned, but ultimately a decision is made that pleases everyone while acknowledging the sheer fact that aging should be celebrated not hidden.
In the feminine vein of The Dixie Swim Club, Five Women Wearing the Same Dress and Steel Magnolias among others, Miller’s one-act work leans heavily on comical characterization and colorful chit-chat, which in this case grows inadvertently mundane due to the lack of forward action. Mere discussion, even when interrupted by a few plates of French Toast, isn’t plot. There’s also an awkward Motown moment evoking The Big Chill which feels forced. Still, there are an assortment of relevant, vital themes driving the play’s intentions such as ageism, identity, loss, financial stability, technological advances, and the emotional weight of being a caregiver.
Despite the script’s shortcomings, co-directors Annie and Fran Pesch assemble and smoothly guide a committed and compatible cast. Martin, although too young, is a credible ringleader proving why Danny has succeeded throughout the decades as the warm, feisty, funny, and free-spirited glue holding this foursome together even as her mother Bess (Gayle Smith, heartbreaking) battles dementia. McGinnis, a fine fit as outspoken Sil, scores many laughs, especially considering Sil’s fixation on having a facelift (“It’s not about being younger but refreshed!). Turner, benefitting from some of the strongest dialogue, finds engaging introspectiveness in the complex Mac, proud to stand in her truth as a gay black female. Pfeifer, performing in only her second play, particularly draws the audience in when Gabby quietly reflects on her delicate relationship with her transgendered granddaughter. Jamison Meyer tenderly completes the cast as Danny’s caring, thoughtful son Simon.
20th Century Blues falls short of being a truly compelling journey, but its depiction of sisterhood surviving the test of time is undeniably heartfelt.
20th Century Blues concludes today at 2 p.m. at Actor’s Theatre of Fairborn, 23 E. Main St. The play is performed in 100 minutes without intermission. Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 for seniors and students. Cash or check only. There is open seating. Call (937) 654-0400 to make a reservation. For more information, visit youngatheartplayers.com. Patrons are advised the show contains strong language and adult situations.