‘My Old Lady’ allows pain, suffering, culture clash to rotate through characters

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by Bob Evans

Count on Kansas City Actors Theatre to find and mount rich, textured productions with characters, action, dialogue, and entertainment worthy of the best local talent–which KCAT always snags–as “My Old Lady” proves.

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The play, never previously produced in Kansas City, allows three local superb actors to create luxurious characters and work together to show all aspects of the characters and situations crafted by the author. Israel Horovitz . David Fritts, Jan Rogge, and Kathleen Warfel crafted complex characters and a French accent for the elite Paris setting in a 1940s era drama where cultures, values, and reality collide. Credit director Darren Sextro with masterminding the process to bring “My Old Lady” to City Stage in Kansas City’s historic Union Station.

The play opens with a 90 year-old widow settling down for a nap when an impetuous, down on his luck, broke American comes into her apartment in Paris to surmise his inheritance in hopes of selling the property, gaining quick bucks, and returning to his blame-it-on-dad lifestyle that confirms his “poor me” status. As Mathias learns about the apartment, the resident that holds a lifetime lease on the property, and her obstinate daughter, he really controls nothing in his life. His plan for quick bucks disintegrate with each new discovery about his life, his dad’s life, his mother’s life, and his ignorance of what surrounded him. Illumination does not bring understanding in his case, but it does allow for different perspective on his father’s secret love life.

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David Fritts stars as Mathias, the disgruntled, ne’er do well, apartment owner who inherited the apartment and its resident. His complex character exists in a world set against him and clouded my a father’s past of which he had no notion. As Fritts works through the piece, the audience sees more and more into Mathias’ soul as he learns about his father, his mother, and his father’s lover. As Mathias learns more and relaxes, his personal problems begin to unfold…one of which is alcoholism. Fritts just maneuvers in and out of various stages of drunkenness as the character unfolds. Watching him work through this piece shows excellent restraint and character development as his pains and understandings come to light.

The “old lady” recants that she knew James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway and other famous figures of the literary and political movement from Paris in the 1930s, giving the idea that she was a woman of more than moderate means at the time. Her more cosmopolitan attitudes clash with the Victorian values of most Americans of the time, and her Catholic faith explains how and why circumstances played out as they did in the play.

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And, under all this and makeup, Kathleen Warfel gives a brilliant performance as the 90 year-old former lover. Warfel wears the character whose past gives her a fullness and richness where she can develop the character. She’s old, wise, and aged, like a fine, aged French burgundy wine. She gives her insights to the younger American, and their friendship develops through pain. Her past, her pains, her sufferings all give layers of characterization to “My Old Lady.”

The final piece of the puzzle lies in Jan Rogge’s character of Chloe, a teacher who also reveals levels of pain and sorrow from her past. Her relationship with both her mother and Mathias provide plenty of fuel with her anger and rage. Unlike Mathias, Chloe knew of her mother’s illicit affair and affection for Mathias’ father. She bring a different perspective unseen and acknowledged by Mathilde and Mathias. Chloe’s on stage time is far less than the two main characters’ but in that short time she can steal any scene with her strong stage presence.

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Rogge allows the audience to see her pain that differs from the central figures’ pains. Her interaction with each of the other two characters allows her to slowly unveil the intricacies of the plot. Rogge give another strong performance to add to her resume.

“My Old Lady” provides a beautiful frame for some KC locals to strut their acting expertise. Each one brings a new character not seen before from them. The only problem is that the plot is somewhat predictable. Audiences know that a plot twist always reveals the fine details of the piece. In this case, the outcome was somewhat predictable 20 minutes into the production. The careful complexity of the story made the whole piece captivating. The actors gave masterful characterizations and showed how each suffered, overcame, and handled difficulties. The result is a thick, rich tapestry of love and devotion with a bit of understanding thrown in.

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“My Old Lady” is geared toward an adult audience. The play does not contain a lot of action or a lot of mystery. The play is more like a character study of three characters dealing with their own perceptions. Each character grows and learns from the others. The actors all unfold layers, and complexity that keep the audience engaged. The play allows the actors to challenge their minds and skills to develop complex characters for the audiences to enjoy. KCAT score again with a solid choice of play, cast, director, and crew. No weaknesses can be found in the play.

Images courtesy of KCAT, Brian Paulette and Bob Evans

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