Against this backdrop, Seattle playwright Katie Forgette imagines aged baby boomers living in a “prisonlike” senior residence, shortly after the demise of Medicare.
In her play, “Assisted Living,” now having its world-premiere at ACT Theatre, such facilities, once penitentiaries, are now nursing homes operated by the government under the Senior Provision Act, a.k.a. “SPA.”
The elderly who occupy them are forced to sell all their assets to pay for every item needed for their government-run care, even oxygen and bags for bodily fluids.
In SPA Facility #273, the rules are strict, with specific times for chatting and for quiet.
At night, a robot named “Hal” patrols the darkened halls and during the day, the residents are in the care of the bitter, ever-controlling Nurse Claudia (Julie Briskman). She rules the ward with an iron hand and a hypodermic needle, viewing her elderly flock with complete disdain and resentment. To her, these people are all worthless and undeserving of respect or compassion.
She takes delight in stripping them of their dignity and in constantly reminding them of the bad habits they engaged in during their lives which led to their chronic health problems. In her mind, the residents are all leeches, who have drained society’s resources, leaving her generation without any entitlements.
Newly arrived resident Joe Taylor (Kurt Beattie) enters the scene to find an institutionalized community stripped of basic freedoms.
Disturbed by these conditions, he makes it his mission to elevate the spirits of the other residents, who though deeply unhappy, appear resigned to accept their situation without a fight. They know if they dare to upset the status quo, Nurse Claudia will threaten them with banishment to the first floor, better known as the “twilight ward,” where heavy sedation is the protocol. Those who are sent to this area of the facility never return.
Taylor, who had been an actor, discovers other former actors at the residence and he persuades them to read plays together and to give a holiday performance for families and other residents.
The activity becomes a way for the seniors to revolt against a dehumanizing system.
Joining Taylor in this endeavor are Beatrice “Judy” Hart (Marianne Owen), Wally Carmichael (Jeff Steitzer), and Mitzi Kramer (Laura Kenny).
Each of these individuals has learned to employ different mechanisms to cope with their predicaments.
As a former nurse, Mitzi, for example, tries to continue to care for others by doing her own “rounds” at the facility.
Beatrice does crossword puzzles and keeps her head in a book, while Wally, lost without the batteries to his hearing aids (Nurse Claudia withholds them from him), is forced to tune out the world around him.
With some help and cooperation from young orderly Kevin (Tim Gouran), the foursome rehearses in secret.
“Assisted Living” is a well-crafted drama that interlaces biting comedy with moments of tenderness and poignancy. Its darkly comical view of America’s healthcare system elicits much hearty laughter from the audience, but it also makes us squirm a bit.
The theme hits uncomfortably close to home, especially when one considers the statistics about aging boomers and the all-too-near-in-the-future impact they will have on the system.
As for the cast, each member embraces his/her role with gusto and gives laudable and memorable performances.
Comprised of mainly Seattle veteran actors, this group, under the deft direction of R. Hamilton Wright, is a dream ensemble that possesses talent and chemistry in spades. They are a joy to watch in this timely, compassionate and very funny production.
“Assisted Living” runs through May 12 at ACT Theatre in Seattle. For ticket information: (206) 292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org