Not long ago, I visited The Core Theatre to see Fire at the Cocoanut Grove 1942, a documentary play exploring a notorious catastrophe that took many lives, resulting from a series of arbitrary flukes. A busboy lights a match, after amorous lovers extinguish the lamp for some privacy. Exits that should have been clearly marked are inaccessible when the manager attempts to stop customers from walking the check. The piece is a combination of slides, monologues, and traditional narrative drama. We are given a lot of information, to helpwith context, detail and the impact of tragedy on an enormous scale. It’s tempting to focus on how these devastating episodes might have been avoided (and the fire was a watershed for change in safety regulations) but sadly, they also seem to carry the oninous implication of inevitability. I mention this because it seems that The Core Theatre isn’t afraid to tackle difficult issues, as I discovered when I recently saw Pap’s Place.
Pap is an older gentleman, time is catching up to him. It’s ironic that in the 21st Century we seem less equipped to deal with the exigencies of aging; than we might have, say, in the 1960’s or earlier, when folks seemed to roll with the situation, instead of going to pieces. Pap’s loving family : his son, Frank, Daughter-in-law, Colleen, grandson Greg, and sister-in-law Minnie, are there to help him celebrate his birthday. His memory isn’t what it used to be, he’s not exactly spry, but he’s doing all right. It’s not like he’s facing his twilight years alone. Frank has a tendency to panic, and is convinced that assisted living is the only olution to Pap’s predicament, lest some calamity befall him without supervision. The fact that Frank also insists on dictatng Greg’s future suggests that he dreads any situation he can’t control. This is understandable. None of us like waiting for the other shoe to drop, though I wish playwright Paul McCusker had made Frank a bit less abrasive.
In the second act, we find Pap on his next birthday, in a nursing home, confined to a wheelchair. Frank begins to regret his ill-considered demands and has an epiphany, reconciling with his father in the shadow of imminent demise, and Greg. Minnie talks about trusting God when circumstances put us out of our depth, and the iinfinite plan beyond our grasp.
Pap’s Place is filled with tenderness and warmth, gentle humor and appreciation for the lovely occasions that suffuse our lives with grace and gladness. Like Fire at the Cocoanut Grove 1942, it addresses painful issues that feel impervious to logic. If life is a gift, if our existence is sacred privilege, how are expected to manage such overwhelming ordeals? In some ways Pap’s Place reminded me of The Shadow Box, Michael Cristofer’s drama set in a hospice where we see different characters handle death in different ways. The playwright isn’t necessarily expected to provide answers for every question, but we need to go beyond abstraction. How do we apply faith in the midst of despair? How do we talk to God when we’re feeling abandoned? Pap’s Place was very touching and brimming with humanity, an absorbing play with great dedication and heart.
The Core Theatre presents Pap’s Place, playin February 5th-28th, 2015. 518 West Arapaho Road, Suite 115, Richardson, Texas 75080. 214-930-5338. www.thecoretheatre.org.