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Friday, May 13, 2016

Up Above the World with The Empty Nesters

Posted By on Fri, May 13, 2016 at 12:00 PM

click to enlarge Pamela Gaye Walker and John Walker star as a couple visiting the Grand Canyon Skywalk after dropping their youngest child at college in The Empty Nesters. - DAVID ALLEN
  • David Allen
  • Pamela Gaye Walker and John Walker star as a couple visiting the Grand Canyon Skywalk after dropping their youngest child at college in The Empty Nesters.

When Paul Bowles writes about couples whose marriages are in trouble, he sends them abroad for the unraveling. In Garret Jon Groenveld’s play The Empty Nesters, he sends Frances and Greg to the Grand Canyon. This vacation — along with their outfits and arguments — signals their milieu: the American suburb. Mortgage payments there buzz in the ear like so many frustrated mosquitos. At best, they are indifferent to their careers. But duty-bound, they work to afford a house and to pay for the education of their two college-age kids.

The trip to Arizona was booked as a remedy for their sudden, empty nest. While their daughter is safely tucked away in her freshman dorm, Frances (Pamela Gaye Walker) and Greg (John Walker) are left alone with each other. An emotional chasm as big as the, well, Grand Canyon, opens up between them. It’s a portrait of a marriage in transition. 


click to enlarge John Walker and Pamela Gaye Walker star as a couple confronting life after the last kid has left home in The Empty Nesters. - DAVID ALLEN
  • David Allen
  • John Walker and Pamela Gaye Walker star as a couple confronting life after the last kid has left home in The Empty Nesters.

Groenveld isn’t interested in staging a dysfunctional family melodrama. He concentrates solely on a daylong conversation between one middle-aged couple. This dialogue unfolds in a one-act play of three evenly divided scenes. We are essentially watching them rebuild the relationship one sentence at a time. And it all starts when Frances, in a fit of pique, informs her husband, “I’m thinking of leaving you.”

Of course, every spouse in every marriage thinks that thought at one low point or another. Frances simply articulates it. The Empty Nesters explores the conflict that ensues and the consequences of her angry outburst. Because Groenveld grounds the diction — the shared grievances revolve around their ordinary, shared days together — the play doesn’t overreach by grasping for profundity. Frances just wants to be heard and understood. Now that the children are gone, she wants to connect with Greg in a more meaningful way. The question is how?
click to enlarge John Walker and Pamela Gaye Walker star as a couple confronting life after the last kid has left home in The Empty Nesters. - DAVID ALLEN
  • David Allen
  • John Walker and Pamela Gaye Walker star as a couple confronting life after the last kid has left home in The Empty Nesters.

It turns out that the couple on stage is also married in real life. Pamela Gaye Walker has a longer acting resume than John, a movie producer with a background in theater. It came then as a great surprise that he delivered such a warm and thoughtful performance. It’s Frances’s wish that sets the play in motion; it’s Greg who has to evolve to fulfill that wish. And, thanks to John’s skill as an actor, we watch him puzzle through his wife’s mood shifts.

It’s impossible to know if their personal relationship helped the couple achieve this degree of intimacy on stage. But when they hold hands on the Grand Canyon’s glass skyway, a real sense of forgiveness fills the auditorium. It’s the surest sign that Frances isn’t going anywhere. Greg steadies her on the delicate precipice of enduring love.

The Empty Nesters, at Z Space, 450 Florida St, 415-626-0453.


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