Review: MY OLD LADY at Kansas City Actors Theatre
By Marissa Carter
Renowned playwright Israel Horovitz has referred to his play “My Old Lady” as his “love letter to Paris”. In this production, the Kansas City Actors Theatre, under the direction of Darren Sextro, has executed his vision with all the subtlety, emotion, and tired grandeur it requires.
The play is about an aging failed novelist, Mathias (David Fritts), who inherits a spectacular apartment in Paris from his father. Down on his luck in every way possible, Mathias hopes to sell the apartment quickly and begin a new life on the profits. He arrives in Paris only to find that the apartment is occupied by a lively widow named Mathilde (Kathleen Warfel) and her middle-aged daughter Chloe (Jan Rogge). Mathilde explains that the apartment was purchased en viager, a French real estate arrangement that gives Mathilde the legal right to occupy the apartment for life, meaning that Mathias may not take possession of the property, or sell it until she dies. Realizing that he has no other place to go, Mathilde invites Mathias to stay in the apartment with her until he can figure out what else to do.
With a set-up like this, I expected to see a dramatized version of “The Odd Couple:” A story about two very different people engaging in arguments and awkward situations that eventually resolve into mutual respect and affection.
What I got was something so much deeper. Through these characters, we get to experience the consequences of decisions that were made a lifetime ago. As the story unfolds, we feel fresh pain in each new revelation and follow each character on a journey through futility, resignation, and eventually, acceptance.
The characters in this play are painfully human and beautifully flawed. Each one is expertly brought to life on stage by the small cast.
Fritts’ portrayal of Mathias, the angry alcoholic and general failure in life, exceeds expectations; particularly in the subtlety he applies to his drinking scenes. Though many actors would opt for a drunken stumble combined with a few comedic hiccups, Fritts instead shows us a slight slur accentuated by some fumbling of the fingers. It is just enough to reveal his familiarity with having a few too many drinks, his tightly held self-control, and his deeply held pain and anger.
In contrast, Rogge, as the bitter spinster daughter, impressively conveys a woman who has developed a hard defensive shell that is born of fear and self-preservation rather than strength and confidence. She displays a balanced combination of tenderness and irritation throughout the show.
The standout performance, however, comes from Warfel as the vibrant and unapologetic Old Lady. She plays her role flawlessly; entirely believable in every line and movement. She would make an excellent character study for any actor.
The entire play takes place in the living room of Mathilde’s apartment in Paris that overlooks le Jardin du Luxembourg. The size, location, and market value of the apartment are referred to often throughout the play, so the setting is clearly established.
Scenic designer Bret Engle did an excellent job of creating the apartment using minimal walls, dusty draperies, a faded marble floor, and a few well-placed set pieces. The space on the stage was well used, both for visual effect and the actor’s blocking. The combination of wood and rich, dark colors created an overall impression of outdated and lived-in luxury.
The drapes are closed at the top of the play, and it was a nice surprise when they were pulled open to flood the room with sunlight and reveal gorgeous French doors and a beautifully painted backdrop. I was impressed throughout the show by the work of the lighting designers, Kylor Greene and Shelbi Arndt, and by the perfect timing of the crew as they clearly marked the passage of time through the lighting in the windows.