Theater & dance

In ‘The Waverly Gallery,’ Kenneth Lonergan delves into his own family’s heartbreak

EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images/file
Kenneth Lonergan

When Kenneth Lonergan began writing his play “The Waverly Gallery” in the 1990s, it was a story that hit brutally close to home, but one he felt he needed to share. In this memory play about memory loss, Lonergan examines a painful chapter from his family’s then-recent past — the slow yet inexorable decline into dementia of his grandmother.

So when a recent revival of “The Waverly Gallery” starring comedy legend Elaine May opened on Broadway last fall, Lonergan grappled with a mix of emotions. “In a funny way, it was nice to see my family again, as they were then, and it was nice to see my grandmother again, in a way. But that was a rough time. The material is very difficult for me and for anyone who’s been through anything like what the characters in the play are going through,” says Lonergan, the Oscar-winning writer and director of the searing 2016 film “Manchester by the Sea,” set on the North Shore.

Despite the pain of revisiting the story, Lonergan was thrilled to see “The Waverly Gallery,” a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2001, finally make its Broadway bow nearly 20 years after it premiered to warm reviews. The new production, which wrapped in January, has scored two Tony Award nominations, best revival of a play and best actress in a play (for May’s indelible performance). Now, Shakespeare and Company in the Berkshires is mounting “The Waverly Gallery” through July 14, starring Annette Miller as Gladys Green and directed by Shakespeare & Company founder Tina Packer.

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In the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Lonergan was in his 20s, he lived in an apartment next door to his grandmother in a building she owned in Greenwich Village. (Lonergan continued to live in the apartment with his wife, the actress J. Smith-Cameron, and their daughter, up until a few years ago.) His grandmother also owned a tiny art gallery around the block, where he would visit with her occasionally. Over the course of a few years, she began forgetting things, repeating herself, and became increasingly confused. To make matters worse, she also suffered hearing loss. “The Waverly Gallery” was inspired by that time in her life.

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“I wrote the play because it seemed like something enormous had happened to all of us in my family, and it felt like something I really wanted to try to write about,” says Lonergan by phone a few days before traveling to London, where his 2009 play “The Starry Messenger” is being revived with Matthew Broderick, Lonergan’s best friend since he was 15. “In the manifest details, it’s the most overtly autobiographical thing I’ve ever written.”

As a young adult and quintessential neurotic New Yorker, Lonergan acknowledges that his focus was often elsewhere at that time, so he didn’t always fully appreciate his grandmother. Still, he says, he couldn’t avoid the reality of her deterioration. “I lived down the hall, so it was very much in my face. What was happening to her was acutely, painfully easy to grasp.”

In the play, Gladys Green is a loquacious octogenarian widow, a former attorney and activist who had a flourishing social life during her heyday in the 1950s and ’60s. Her gallery displays the work of students and mostly unknown artists, and in the play she mounts a show for a naive lost soul from Massachusetts named Don, who ends up living in the back of the gallery.

As she aged, Lonergan says, his grandmother became increasingly garrulous, and conversations with her could be “maddening and repetitious.”

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“But she was also such a generous person,” Lonergan says, “and her cheerfulness and warmth and supportiveness were all still there. She was always interested in what you were doing.”

“The Waverly Gallery” is narrated by Gladys’s grandson, Daniel, the Lonergan stand-in, who has a penchant for wry, detached sarcasm. He writes speeches for the Environmental Protection Agency and describes his family as “liberal Upper West Side atheistic Jewish intellectuals.” Daniel’s dutiful mother, Ellen, a psychiatrist, lives uptown but keeps close watch on her mother, taking care of her finances, scheduling her doctors’ appointments, and hosting her for weekly family dinners with Daniel’s acerbic stepfather, Howard.

We see the toll that Gladys’s worsening condition exacts on her family. “It’s not just that they’re facing this terrible, inevitable, inexorable decline, they’re also doing everything they can to stop it, prevent it, delay it, undo it,” Lonergan says. “And of course they can’t. But the effort that they put into it is, I think, surprisingly inspiring for a play that tackles such a painful subject.”

Lonergan says his grandmother helped spark his interest in theater. As a kid, he wrote science fiction stories. Then in high school, his grandmother told him about a national one-act play contest for students after she saw an ad for it in a Playbill. He submitted a piece called “Performance,” which he calls “a thinly disguised rip-off of [the film] ‘Network,’ ” and it won him third prize and $100. “She was always doing stuff like that,” he says. “Everybody needs encouragement when they’re starting out, and that was really encouraging.”

These days, Lonergan’s fortunes seem to have shifted. After breaking through as a playwright and earning an Oscar nomination for his indie film gem “You Can Count on Me,” he got derailed by a turbulent, multi-year post-production saga over his follow-up film “Margaret.” When the drama — centered on a teenage girl (Anna Paquin) dealing with a crisis of conscience — was finally released in 2011, six years after it was shot, the studio declined to promote it. But it was championed by critics, cinephiles, and Lonergan’s friends and collaborators, including Matt Damon, Martin Scorsese, and Mark Ruffalo, and some critics now consider it a 21st-century masterpiece.

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Since then, Lonergan has written and directed “Manchester by the Sea,” which won him an Oscar for best original screenplay as well as nominations for best picture and director, and he penned the 2017 Starz/BBC adaptation of “Howards End.”

‘That was a rough time. The material is very difficult for me and for anyone who’s been through anything like what the characters in the play are going through.’

He’s also seen three of his earlier plays — “This Is Our Youth,” “Lobby Hero,” and “The Waverly Gallery” — make their Broadway debuts over the past half decade, in starry revivals that earned critical kudos and several Tony nominations.

The reception to “Waverly Gallery” on Broadway was especially heartening for Lonergan, considering its sometimes bleak subject matter. People would approach him and the actors after the show, on the street, or even in restaurants to share their own stories. “They talked about how meaningful it felt to see their own experience reflected in a play but not have it sentimentalized,” Lonergan says. “I was always afraid I was just beating people over the head with a difficult phase of life, so I was gratified when people would tell me the play made them feel like their experience had validity.”

The Waverly Gallery

Presented by Shakespeare & Company. At Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre, Lenox, through July 14. Tickets from $25, 413-637-3353, www.shakespeare.org

Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at chriswallenberg@gmail.com.