“Grace and Glorie” features two women who form an unlikely friendship in the most difficult circumstance — and the transformation from foes to friends is at the heart of the play, being performed Feb. 28 to March 3 in Statesboro.
The play stars Susan Jackson as 90-year-old cancer patient Grace Stiles, who returns home after a hospital stay due to a broken hip. Her grandson drops her off at the “granny cottage” on the family farm, which Grace has sold to pay her medical bills. She’s chosen the cottage as the place where she will spend her final days.
Eileen Bayens plays Gloria Whitmore, a driven New York business woman who has moved to the small rural town with her husband, an attorney. The couple’s son had died, and Gloria’s husband thought getting out of the city might help their on-ice relationship. Once they’ve moved, however, Gloria finds there’s nothing for her to do. She stumbles across the opportunity to serve as a hospice volunteer, which leads her to Grace, who calls her “Glorie.”
Jackson and Bayens were drawn to the play because of the relationship that develops between the two women.
“I won’t be so sappy as to say it embodies our friendship, but it does talk about how people come into your life for a reason. And I believe that, that we cross each other’s paths for a reason. And that’s definitely the message in this show,” said Bayens.
Jackson says she found the play so affecting because it focused on a hospice patient and volunteer, particularly because her daughter Jennifer Nunn, who is directing the play, works in hospice care.
“That even gave it more meaning for us,” Jackson said.
When she was asked to direct the play, Nunn said she hadn’t read it but found that once she had, there were multiple reasons why she wanted to be a part of it.
“The fact that I’ve spent the better part of 10 years working in hospice care, and this play is literally like pulling back that fourth wall and peeling open into someone who is under hospice care. They’re at the end of their life. And it’s a lot like life, because there is a lot of comic relief in life. We can be crying and upset and mad, and somebody says something, and we bust out laughing. There are a lot of those moments in this play, and I think the audience will enjoy but also relate,” she said.
Nunn also wanted to do the play because she wants to see the Averitt Center for the Arts support the local talent that exists in the Boro.
“I’m of the mindset that our local talent can produce things that are equal to professional. I think from a community standpoint, we have to support these types of productions just as much as we support big musicals. It’s important to me,” she said.
All three women agree that they’d like to see a series of black box
productions — the play is being performed at the Whitaker Black Box Theater. They believe that since the theater is such an intimate setting, it truly creates a unique experience for the actors and the audience.
“It is very intimate, and you do connect with the audience because you are so close,” said Jackson. “You can tell whether they are enjoying it or not.” She added that this is her third show in the venue, and she’s grown used to it and is very comfortable there.
The women also agree that the script is really well written.
“Some just aren’t that well-crafted,” said Bayens, adding that this was also something that drew them to the play.
“There are connections throughout the show that are made that you find and discover as you go through it, that I as an actress appreciated. It’s not a trite script in any way,” she said.
“This is exceptional story telling. That wall disappears and you’re there and you’re watching these two women figure this whole thing out, and it’s just so well written that I think even if it is so serious, it’s still enjoyable,” Nunn added.
Preparing for their performance has been very challenging for Jackson and Bayens.
“It has really inspired us to hone our craft, to get the emotions across. It’s very emotional,” said Jackson.
All three made a trip to Knoxville, Tennessee to work with John Ferguson for a weekend. Ferguson is a professional actor and educator with more than 40 years of experience. He helped them to develop their characters.
“He is so good on helping you to pull those characters out of you, and explain who the character is and helping us discover those characters,” Jackson said.
Nunn said the emotion behind the lines is incredibly important with this show.
“There is such a difference between just learning your lines and saying your lines on stage, and actually putting an emotion that happens first before that line is ever spoken. There so much to be said about that,” she said.
Jackson called playing the part of Grace the most challenging role she’s played to date. This is her third two-person show, and there was twice as much to memorize this time.
“I’m actually looking forward to presenting this to an audience. I’m starting to get excited about it,” she said.
Along with the friendship that develops between the two women, the play also focuses on the transformation that happens individually in each of the characters. Gloria comes in questioning everything in her life, and this causes Grace to question many things in hers.
“Each of our lives brings questions from the other one that helps us come to terms with where we are in life,” said Bayens.
The play was made into a Hallmark movie, but Nunn, Bayens and Jackson were quick to say that audiences shouldn’t expect that Hallmark “flavor” in this production. The movie had the trademark “warm and fuzzy” Hallmark feel to it.
“The play just doesn’t have that. There’s not a lot of warm fuzzy in it,” said Bayens.
Nunn says she’d like the audience to walk away with a greater understanding of hospice and what it does, along with an appreciation of and respect for those who are in the last stages of life. She wants to see people question their purpose in life and in the community.
“We have people here just like Grace Stiles in this community. They check themselves out of the hospital and they go home and they’re alone. And they don’t have to be. There’s a lot of joy that I’ve gotten out of working in hospice care, because of the relationship I’ve established with those I’m caring for,” she said.
Bayens agreed, adding that she’d like for people to realize also that there is “a place for the Gloria Whitmores who are looking for something they can volunteer and do.”
When asked to describe their characters in one word, both Bayens and Jackson pause and think hard.
“There isn’t one word for either of the characters, because they transform during the course of the play,” Nunn interjected.
All three women did agree that both characters are complicated. Grace is “complicated simple,” and Gloria is “simply complicated.”
Nunn invites the audience to not just view the play, but to also be challenged. And she wants people in the community to recognize the talent that’s here.
“I want the audience to come into this world,” she said. “I want Statesboro to realize the talent that exists here. I want them to come to this play and I want them to feel as though, ‘I could go off-Broadway and see this.’ We have that kind of talent in our community. And far too often it gets overlooked.”
Tickets for “Grace and Glorie” are $20 and are on sale at www.averittcenterforthearts.org, at the box office Monday through Friday or by calling (912) 212-2787. The show begins at 7:30 p.m. each evening, and there is a 3 p.m. matinee on March 3.