William Shakespeare once wrote "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players." The notion that all human beings are actors who play different parts at different stages of life may be a completely metaphorical concept—except perhaps for actual actors who live by this theory in its most literal sense. But what if all the world really was a stage, not only for actors, but for everyone? What if the people you met were really all characters who play a role in telling the story of your life? This is the case in John J. Caswell, Jr.'s Scene Partners—a new Off-Broadway play directed by Tony Award winner Rachel Chavkin.
The scene is 1985. It is another winter in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and 75-year-old Meryl Kowalski—played by two-time Academy Award winner Dianne Wiest—is fed up with her glum life. From enduring harsh abuse at the hands of various men, to shouldering the burden of caring for her drug-addicted daughter, Meryl's entire existence has been one never-ending winter. After the death of her cruel late husband, Meryl wastes no time in taking back her life. She buys a one-way ticket to sunny Los Angeles, determined to become a Hollywood movie star.
"It's so incredible...and it's so unusual," says Wiest, when asked what it is like to play the hero of the story at age 75. "It feels like her ambitions are those of an 18-year-old."
Scene Partners turns ageism on its head, breaking Meryl out of the fragile side-character box that women of her age typically live in. Instead, Wiest's leading woman is a freedom-seeker—vivacious, empowered, and a force to be reckoned with. Meryl is determined to make a better life for herself while there is still life to live. "There's no time [for her] to wonder, 'Gee whiz, should I be doing this at my age?'" says Wiest. "There's no choice." Scene Partners was just extended at the Vineyard Theatre until December 17.
On her adventure out west, dressed in a beige button-up coat and a whole lot of gumption, Meryl quickly finds an agent, joins an acting class full of Hollywood hopefuls, and meets a wildly expressive Aussie director named Hugo Lockerby—played by celebrated film and theatre actor Josh Hamilton (who can also be seen in the Leonard Bernstein biopic Maestro). Hugo helps Meryl bring her life story to the silver screen.
Wiest and Hamilton have had extensive careers both on stage and on screen. But in Scene Partners, they step back into the shoes of two characters who have yet to break into the American film industry. Though, says Hamilton, playing a struggling artist does not feel so far-fetched. "I was working in a market this summer," he admits, frankly.
To Hamilton, having a "big break" in the entertainment industry seems like an illusion. "I think you sort of get these little breaks...and all you worry about is staying where you are while it lasts," he says. "I'm still waiting for my break."
Wiest echoes Hamilton's statement. "[The insecurity] is ongoing," she says. "After every job you say, 'Well, I guess that was my last.'"
But playing Meryl does bring back memories for Wiest from when her acting career was just beginning. "I'm reminiscing about my salad days, waitressing and being rejected [as an actor] by anyone who would take my picture and resume," she says. "The fact that Meryl's 75 and so ambitious and determined, and has so much she wants to do...she makes me feel like I'm 18 again."
In addition to playing the volatile Lockerby (who likes to chuck Diet Coke cans at his students), Hamilton portrays a number of different roles in Scene Partners, including Meryl's agent and her father. "It's both liberating and a bit difficult to change characters in the space of what sometimes feels like three or four seconds between scenes," he says. Hamilton describes the physical, mental, and vocal gymnastics that transitioning between characters in the show requires as "emotional whiplash," adding, "Trying to figure out where you are, who you are, and what you want...it keeps you on your toes."
The audiences are also kept on their toes, as the play shifts moods from heightened surrealism to dramatic realism. There’s also multiple scenes that completely switch mediums and are played out on film.
Nailing these shifts was a challenge for the playwright Caswell and the actors. "I think he did about nine drafts," Wiest says, talking about the multiple different rewrites of the script they were given from the writer prior to the show's opening night. "There was constant change, so you couldn't feel stability."
Adds Hamilton: "John's work presents real challenges for actors because he's not even asking for one style...It almost feels like you're an actor with a mixing board."
The Scene Partners actors feel that Caswell is one of the most receptive writers they have ever worked with. "John took in from what the actors did," says Wiest. "He was always interested in incorporating the thoughts we were bringing to the table."
The result of their collaborative creative process is a story that oozes lasting resonance and unapologetic whimsy. Hamilton hopes viewers of the play let go of the need to make complete sense of what is happening while watching Scene Partners. "There is so much going on...[but] I'd like people to be willing to enjoy the big picture and then put it together afterwards," he says. "The questions the show raises, I think, are more evocative, satisfying, and exciting than a straight, clear, linear narrative."
In an ideal world, life would be a straight, clear, and linear journey. But in reality, life is filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, entrances and exits, changes in the plot and the scenery, and beginnings and endings. Similar to Caswell's play, life is an ever-changing genre.
And that change doesn't stop with age. Society has developed many stereotypes about aging, whether it is the assumption that older people are too set in their ways to change, that they lose interest in the outside world, or that they are too weak-willed to pursue new dreams. But what Scene Partners movingly portrays is that is never too late to rewrite your own story.
"Meryl had a terrible life for 75 years," explains Wiest. "And yet she found the wherewithal to pursue a dream." Meryl gifts viewers an opportunity to consider how they want to be remembered, and what they will do in the time they have left. "It's so exceptional and rare that somebody makes it out of terrible circumstances," says Wiest. "But I believe in what John wrote. And I believe it's possible."