BY STEVE WONG
Contemporary playwright Lauren Gunderson is smart, successful, southern, and very confused about being smart, successful, and southern. In her play The Heath, she shares those confusions—and many others—with an audience she readily acknowledges is right in front of her.
At times, her somewhat-biographical and fictionalized character Lauren is casual, breezy, even funny; at others, she is in absolute anguish. She remembers her past—even researches her family’s past—and tries to make peace with it. Especially when it comes to her PawPaw (translation: grandfather).
Like many of the South’s young and smart, she left to find success elsewhere. For her it was New York City and the theatre, which is pretty much her god. For a while she escaped and ignored her rearing, but, like it often does, her past caught up with her. Or, it might be said she caught up with her past. Especially when it comes to her PawPaw.
In this two-person play currently at The Warehouse Theatre in Greenville, we have Lauren, played so personally by Miranda Barnett, and her dead grandfather, KD Martin, played so professionally by George Judy. They are in a room that is in transition. It’s a modern high-ceiling living room with crown molding, white panels, and wood floor, but, what? the great outdoors is invading?
A grassy knoll dotted with little flowers seems to be growing from the outside to inside the room, and neither character seems to notice, much less care. PawPaw mostly sits to the far left in his wheelchair by a little table; Lauren stays on the very opposite side of the stage, when she’s not moving about, and she moves about quite a bit. In between them is a scattering of clutter: file boxes, furniture, pieces of life. Might there by a gulf between them?
Oh, did I mention that she mentioned—several times—this play has a lot of metaphors? The actual name of the play, impending storms, music, projected photographs, Shakespeare, baseball, theatre itself.
They might not be primary characters, but there are two other “characters” worth mentioning: King Lear and Lauren’s banjo. To make storyline comparisons, resurrected Shakespearean monologues are used extensively throughout the play by both characters. Wow, Judy does such a great job at classical roles! Amazing command of the stage! But only Lauren plays the banjo, something she learned because she knew her PawPaw really loved bluegrass music. He also loved the Bible, his family, America, old southern ways—that is when he can remember them. He had Alzheimer’s.
It is pretty cool that in the grand ol’ southern tradition, that when Lauren played some familiar church hymns, the audience sang, too. She also sang some heartfelt songs we’d never heard: I’m pretty sure she (Gunderson) wrote them.
Of special interest to patrons in the Upstate, The Heath (not the candy bar) has a strong real-life connection to Gaffney, that small city in Cherokee County that is famous for the water tower that looks like a giant peach in the sky, among other things. Gaffney also has a connection to the television show House of Cards, made doubly infamous by its dumped star Kevin Spacey.
This Greenville production is a co-production, as The Heath first premiered at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, MA. After it closed there last year, they packed up nearly the entire production—set, props, costumes, sound, Director Sean Daniels, and actors—and brought it south to what might be considered close to home. Personally, as a southerner, I always wonder what northerners think about plays set in the south, especially Gaffney.
Gunderson is currently the nation’s most-produced living playwright,, rightfully enjoying applause and accolades, and giving the world another reason to love the South and her roots in South Carolina. Both Barnett and Judy are actors of great talent and experience, again lending credibility to a play that I see an emotional collage of memories that we all can find within our own psyches. When did you last go visit your nursing home-bound grandfather who may or may not remember who you are?
The Health presents a great many related emotions and events in the guise of Gunderson’s life. Although at times, it may seem like an over abundance of self, hang with it: It does indeed lead to you a better understanding of some of life’s most difficult guilts, gains, victories, and acceptance.
The Heath continues through January 26 at The Warehouse Theatre, 37 Augusta Street in Greenville. For tickets, call (864) 235-6948 or visit www.warehousetheatre.com.