Glorious ‘Grace & Glorie’ at the Hopewell Theatre

By J.E. Ballantyne Jr.
YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Grace Stiles, 90-years-old and dying of cancer, has left her hospital bed and has returned to her beloved cottage in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It is here that she wants to live out the rest of her days – not in a cold, unfeeling hospital. It all seems like a pretty straight forward final wish – until Gloria Whitmore shows up.

Gloria is a volunteer from hospice who has been sent to the rustic cabin to take care of Grace during her waning time. And although Grace is 90, she is a formidable barrier to Gloria’s good intentions. Tom Ziegler’s “Grace & Glorie” opened at the Hopewell Theatre on Friday night to a small but appreciative audience.

Ziegler has taken the somber subject matter of cancer and has developed a terrific two character comedy/drama with characters that light up the stage. These are real, relatable characters that take the audience on a journey to some very unsuspecting places.

Veteran local actress, Molly Galano lights a fire in the character of Grace. She’s a feisty, tough, opinionated old lady who is not about to be “railroaded” to her death bed without a fight. Galano is brilliant in her portrayal. Singing along to a country song on a Walkman with headphones, she is totally oblivious to the entrance of Gloria in the opening scene. Hospice? What’s that? And why are you here? She makes it clear that she doesn’t understand why Gloria came “to help her die.” She isn’t afraid of dying! Or is she?

Galano doesn’t just play the character of Grace – she is the character. Her quick banter with Gloria rings true to many people who have a similar elderly relative. Grace may be close to death but she is far from it as she fends off every attempt by Gloria to make her more comfortable. She’s gruff, she’s strong, and Galano takes every opportunity to sink her teeth into every inch of the character.

But Galano softens many of those tough moments with just enough humanity to make this character lovable. She gives her a sense of humor that Grace probably doesn’t even know she has. A devout Christian, Grace is secure in knowing Gloria doesn’t need to be there; the Lord is already there with her.

But as cantankerous as Grace is, she also has a side that has been hiding some past unhappiness. And Galano brings those to the surface with dignity and – grace. The end of Act I and into Act II shows Galano’s extreme versatility that helps make this character so real.

Gloria (or as Grace calls her, Glorie) is played by Joanna Andrei. Andrei is another area actress that has graced many a stage. Known mainly for her comedic roles, she gets to use those chops here but branches out in other directions that truly impress.

She plays Glorie as energetic and upbeat but you get the impression early on that something is being hidden. Andrei does just enough to make you wonder about the reason Glorie is actually there. Glorie is not an experienced hospice volunteer so how did she end up with Grace?

Glorie is an educated and accomplished woman who is not used to being in these rustic surroundings. Andrei is superb as she attempts to deal with the backwoods surroundings. Her scene with lighting the wood stove and boiling water are high points in the early going.

She transitions with ease between an upbeat and happy attitude to frustration and confusion as she tries to deal with Grace who seems two steps ahead of everything she tries to do. One of Andrei’s great qualities, as an actress, is her face. It communicates exactly what the character is thinking and she uses it full force in this production. There were some scenes where lines just weren’t needed.

But Glorie is an even more complex character than Grace, and Andrei pulls off the “hidden” Glorie with ease. Glorie is hiding a dark secret about a past tragedy in her life. Andrei’s scene where she unveils this past event is truly heart wrenching. Many people have never seen her do drama and this scene is a grabber. I even saw tissues out at intermission.

Galano and Andrei have created two characters that the audience can’t help but fall in love with. They play off of each other in such a natural way that it almost seems like they are improvising the entire show. The banter, the talk, the writing is real every inch of the way but without talented actors to pull it off it doesn’t work. This works! Their energy is contagious as you anticipate what’s coming next. And even though Glorie is sent to help Grace, it soon becomes obvious that the tables get switched – who is really helping whom? It becomes a battle of the knowledge of years versus the relative inexperience of youth.

“Grace and Glorie” is more than capably directed by Matthew Mazuroski. It is clear that he knows his actors well and has instilled in them a confidence that a two-character show requires. Pacing is critical in a show like this. And although much of it is quick and moves along like a well-oiled machine, he has been able to slow it down when necessary without losing anything in character, intensity, or mood. Transitions are smooth and natural.

Mazuroski also designed a great set for the rustic looking backwoods cottage. Complete with a wood burning stove and a working water pump, it reminded me somewhat of our family cottage in Parry Sound, Canada. Although we had an outhouse for years.

The Hopewell Theatre has come a long way since its beginnings in 1993. It is becoming one of the premier theaters in the Mahoning Valley. Productions like “Grace & Glorie” are what help to make the Hopewell, along with other theaters in the area, drawing cards for area talent as well as audience members. If you are looking for an evening of truly professional level theater in the next week or so, get down to the Hopewell. You will like what you see. This show is one of those little known gems that deserves more stage time.

Grace & Glorie will continue Aug. 26, Sept. 1, 2 at 7:30 p.m. Sept. 3 at 2 p.m.

Pictured at top: Molly Galano and Joanna Andrei in a scene from “Grace & Glorie” at The Hopewell Theatre.

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