Throw Us a Lifeline

by MICHAEL BOWEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & n Tom Ziegler's Grace & amp; Glorie (at Interplayers, Nov. 21-Dec. 8), a hard-driving New York businesswoman has moved into the country and volunteered to do hospice work. But when she runs into a cantankerous 90-year-old backwoods woman who's seen her share of death and now plans to do some dying of her own, the stage is set for a clash of wills.

The elderly woman, more than anything, wants to maintain her independence; the hospice worker, more than anything, wants to be helpful to someone in need. Naturally, the play subverts their desires: Grace, who's old and dying, has to learn how to rely on someone else, and "Glorie" (it's Grace's nickname for Gloria), who's out of her element and grieving, needs to be confronted with her own helplessness.

Ziegler's characters are different in other ways too. The urban woman (Karen Kalensky) knows how to be assertive about her feelings without really knowing what they are: As Kalensky says, "Gloria is vocal but very shut-down." The elderly rural woman (Brady Rubin) is in touch with what she feels, but she's been socialized not to be vocal about her wants and needs. Rubin notes that Grace has been "swallowed up by her husband. She was never able to voice anything -- and that's typical of women in her era."

Yet if Ziegler's play remained that formulaic -- both characters want X but get Y instead -- it would feel too neatly resolved. Instead, the ending is life-affirming, but in a qualified way. Even if she's dying, Grace learns that life can blend independence with reliance on others. And Glorie -- who wanted to escape by burying herself in volunteer work and concentrating on others -- learns that gifts can be given even by the needy.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & K & lt;/span & elly Eviston Quinnett is a University of Idaho theater professor who played Gloria in the Idaho Rep production last year. She notes that excesses of sentimentality -- the heart-warming, sisterhood-forever kind of ending that you might expect from a show that was, after all, done as a much-altered Hallmark Hall of Fame teleplay in 1998 -- aren't really possible when you consider how different the title characters are. Glorie and Grace contrast in just about everything: age, upbringing, education, career, parenting style, religious belief, knowledge of cooking and knitting. They can't get very sentimental -- they're too busy arguing.

There's a scene during Glorie's second hospice visit to Grace's remote farm in which Glorie -- as the ostensible caretaker -- is driven bonkers by chaos in the kitchen, chaos out in the barnyard, chaos everywhere. That's what Quinnett has in mind when she says that the play "is like a Lucille Ball show where Ethel dies at the end."

Grace & amp; Glorie suits the holidays just fine. It takes on the big ideas -- laughs at them, but confronts them too.

& lt;span class= "dropcap " & W & lt;/span & armth of friendship is evident during a recent interview with Kalensky, Rubin and their director, Ellen Crawford (who had a recurring role on ER and who appeared at Interplayers in May in Sparky and the Fitz). As the three women talk and reminisce, it's evident that they've known one another for years -- and that they've directed and acted in just about every possible permutation. That leads to a shorthand of communication, a kind of trusting communication that feels likely to result in a good onstage product.

Crawford is confident about the power of Grace & amp; Glorie's simple story. "Audiences think they want to see lots of people onstage -- and hydraulics," she says, laughing. "But if you have a good story to tell..."

Ziegler's play has a good narrative because it balances perspectives. It's homey enough that Grace times the cooking of an egg by counting stitches -- she wants to keep busy until she dies, preferably while knitting -- but also sophisticated enough to make feminist readings of the Bible an important plot point.

And it uses everyday metaphors. At one point, Grace compares dying to the fearful excitement of riding a Ferris wheel. "I wanted to ride that thing mor'n anything in the world," she says. "But I was too scared. My whole life's been like that. Always too scared."

We're all scared of it, but we all have to face it. With its picture of calm contentedness before death, of the possibility for change even after we're sure we're rooted to our habits, Ziegler's play exemplifies how we could all use a measure of grace before venturing beyond the grave into glory.

Grace & amp; Glorie will laugh in the face of death on Wednesdays-Sundays, Nov. 21-Dec. 8, at Spokane Interplayers Ensemble, 174 S. Howard St. Tickets: $14-$21; $12-$19, seniors. Visit or call 455-PLAY.