Review: "The Treasurer" at JRT of WNY
Accounting for Mother at Jewish Rep of WNY
By ANTHONY CHASE
In plays like The Father by Florian Zeller and The Waverly Gallery Kenneth Lonergan, playwrights have explored the tragedy of losing a beloved family member to dementia. Max Posner’s play, The Treasurer, now on stage at the Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York, offers a contrasting world. In this play, Posner examines the related and arguably more disturbing phenomenon of a son who is called upon to care for a parent he despises.
The son, whose name is never used, is played by David Lundy; the mother, Ida Armstrong, is played by Darleen Pickering Hummert; and this is not a play about love or forgiveness. This is a dark comedy about resentment and guilt.
We will witness the mother-son relationship shift as age and illness cause Ida to become a person far different from the formidable woman she formerly was.
We are introduced to the son in a kind of stand-up comedy routine. Lundy deftly outlines his dilemma with light-hearted nonchalance. He also explains that this story is only being told because the playwright is writing about his own real-life father’s relationship to his grandmother. Layers of reality and layers of fantasy will be revealed.
When we first meet Ida, she is outgoing and charismatic. To the casual observer, she is a marvel of spry energy with an effervescent personality. She’s a grand storyteller and has lived a fascinating life, and yet, to know her well is not to love her. This cheerful and clever woman is a total narcissist, a vampire of sorts, a manipulator who takes and takes.
The son reveals that his mother abandoned him when he was thirteen years old, leaving his father for another man, and effectively destroying their family. It seems she did nothing to minimize the damage. Among his childhood memories is how many times he saw his mother’s car parked outside a local motel. That would be three times. In her selfishness, she was sloppy. She still is.
At this point, however, Ida’s life of fun, adventure, and self-indulgence has just come to an end. Ron, her second husband, has died, and before he died, the happy couple spent money. Lots of money. More money, in fact, than they had. Now, of course, the piper must be paid, but Ida does not have the means to do this. Her grand sense of self is a fantasy that does not match her true past or her financial reality.
And so, the son becomes the treasurer. The title itself speaks of a cold and official role. He is not the provider, the caretaker, or the even the custodian. He is the “treasurer,” a role as cold as a cash machine, which seems especially apt when Ida does things like go on spending sprees, or donate $3,000 of his money to the local symphony in order to enjoy the prestige of seeing her own name printed in the program.
Posner takes the familiar and usually comical theatrical trope of the manipulative mother and gives it an extra twist. The son, despite the resentment he justifiably feels for Ida, feels guilty when he is obliged to tow a hard line with a woman who is now pathetic and old. How is one to react when the person who has done you grave injury is still living, but no longer exists? How is forgiveness even possible when any chance for resolution, much less reconciliation is gone.
And that is the other clever and insightful twist of this play. Ida’s fate is not a moment of triumph for her son. It is not even a moment of quiet satisfaction, or of dispassionate indifference. He feels so enormously guilty that, despite his atheism, he is convinced that he is destined to go to hell in punishment for the way he has treated his despicable mother.
Posner punctuates this woeful tale with numerous moments of comedy. Sardonic comedy. Ironic comedy. Very dark comedy. The absurdity of the son’s plight facilitates this, and the talented cast runs with the ball.
The production has been directed by Saul Elkin and is admirable for its carefully calibrated and nuanced acting and for its economic use of space. We swiftly travel the expansive territory of this story in a little over an hour and a half. The world of the play is created from just a few well-chosen items of furniture, moved invisibly, yet in full view, by stagehand, Jessie Miller.
Both Lundy and Pickering Hummert are remarkable in their roles. Lundy imbues his character with a comical detachment from what he is experiencing. This serves as a crucible for his combined frustration and anger, which finally explode as Ida’s demands become increasingly unreasonable and irrational. His inevitable reaction is inappropriate only because Ida is not mentally capable, not because she is blameless or undeserving.
Pickering Hummert is an actor long known for her impeccable reliability and her talent for mastering a role cold. This is a woman who famously learned a major role in Tom Dudzick’s Lake Effect at the old Studio Arena in about three hours, or something crazy like that, to take over for another actor. She hits the stage with unwavering confidence and precision, playing one of those long-suffering mother roles she has assayed in many another comedy, but to spectacularly different effect here.
The interactions enacted by Lundy and Pickering Hummert are both painful and absurdly comical. Especially powerful is a scene in a restaurant where the food is ceremoniously served, then ceremoniously cleared away. Dementia has changed nothing, except to obligate this man to dine with, and provide for a person he would prefer to forget. Ida endeavors to express her love for her son, but these words, coming from a woman whose lifetime of deeds tells a different story, ring hollow to him. Son feels nothing for the pitiable woman across the table. The scene is underplayed with haunting meticulousness.
A variety of other characters are played by always excellent John Kreuzer and Alexandria Watts. Through them, we see Ida in a succession of situations that reveal her personality and circumstances. Watts is especially fine as a salesperson in Talbot’s clothing store, as she deals with self-absorbed but mentally failing Ida. Kreuzer deploys his formidable comic gifts as a telephone salesperson and as the son’s companion in an elevator descending to hell.
In playwright Posner’s imagination, it is not the devil who descends into to hell, but her victim.
The production continues through February 27th in the Maxine and Robert Seller Theatre, at the Jewish Community Center at 2640 North Forest Road in Getzville. https://www.jccbuffalo.org/event-list/category/jewish-repertory-theatre/2022-02/
The Treasurer by Max Posner
Director: Saul Elkin
Assistant Director: Steven Vaughan
Stage Manager: KG Gorny
Assistant Stage Manager & Props: Jessie Miller
Costume Designer: Kari Drozd
Lighting Designer: Brian Cavanagh
Sound Designer: Tom Makar
Set Designer: David Dwyer