Published in KPBS On Air Magazine March 2005

When Fran Gercke, co-founder of New Village Arts, first read The Waverly Gallery, he thought, “You’d have to be a hermit, or totally cold-blooded, not to respond to this.”

His company’s latest production concerns the reaction of a New York family to the downward spiral of their feisty, high-powered matriarch, who’s slipping away before their eyes, succumbing to age and dementia. Sounds dark and intense — which does, in fact, characterize a great deal of the work of this small but mighty fledgling theater company. But there’s a great deal of humor in this semi-autobiographical 2001 play, written by the highly acclaimed Kenneth Lonergan, who wrote the screenplay for “You Can Count on Me” and the era-defining This is Our Youth, which was named one of the ten best plays of 1998.

“The writing is so human, so wonderfully true to life,” says Kristianne Kurner, Gercke’s wife and New Village co-founder, who directs this production.

“Some scenes could be depressing,” Kurner admits, “but the characters handle the situation exactly as they would in real life –-sometimes with inappropriate humor… Sooner or later, we all have to deal with the decline of a loved one. This is just one family’s perspective. But hopefully, it will make the audience think about their own life and experience. It’s not answering any huge questions. The play just presents the subject and gets people talking, which is the gift of live theater.”

Gercke and Kurner are devoting their lives to having and giving the gift of theater. They met in 1991 at William and Mary College in Virginia. She was in theater; he was an economics major (“my greatest performance ever,” he quips), just dabbling in drama. They’ve been together ever since, moving to New York, and marrying in 1994. They were both admitted by audition to the Actors Studio graduate program, which they attended for three years, taking seminars from such heavy-hitters as Arthur Penn, Ellen Burstyn and Estelle Parsons. They moved to L.A., but didn’t it find conducive to making their kind of theater or raising a child (Jonah is now 6 years old). When Kurner’s parents relocated to San Diego, the young, twirtysomething couple leapt at the opportunity for relocation and family proximity.

In March 2001, they started New Village Arts. A village, they felt, was “something that’s small but can make a significant impact.” Their productions have been meaty and provocative dramas, including Brilliant Traces, Trapped, Orphans and Still Life. Their jointly-directed production of A Lie of the Mind recently won a Patté Award for Outstanding Ensemble. In 2002, Gercke garnered an Outstanding Performance Patté for A Hatful of Rain and The Only Game in Town.

They offset the thought-provoking dramas with light summer fare: Shakespeare in the Park, which they provide for free at a North County venue. The first year (As You Like It), they drew 750 spectators in one weekend. Last summer, Twelfth Night ran for three weekends and attracted 4000 people.

The company philosophy is actor-driven. According to Kurner, “we try to create an environment for freedom, creativity and exploration, which gives actors a real sense of ownership and makes them more alive onstage, and more interactive with each other.”

One of her favorite actors is her husband, who “analyzes the text, does research, fleshes out the character and has the ability to completely live onstage better than anyone I’ve ever worked with.” When Kurner read The Waverly Gallery, she knew he’d be perfect as the narrator/grandson Daniel, the playwright’s alter-ego.

Gercke’s own grandmother suffered a stroke and his grandfather went into a rapid decline, both physically and mentally. Like the characters in the play, he says, his mother and aunt “were terrified and hysterical. They used humor to survive; it was just shy of wicked. It hurt too much to do otherwise. What I learned was, you can’t rescue the past. We can’t go back to how my grandmother used to be. You can’t really get pissed off at her for what she says and does, but you do.”

This is exactly the situation of the play, in which the most challenging role belongs to Gladys, the former leftie activist, owner of the funky little art gallery on Waverly Place in Greenwich Village. When we meet her, she’s already on the downslide and she deteriorates as the play progresses. But she’s got to convince us of the firebrand she once was. The character will be inhabited by powerhouse actor Sandra Ellis-Troy, whom Kurner describes as “larger than life, just like Gladys.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, The Old Globe will be presenting another play by Kenneth Lonergan (5/21–6/26) . Lobby Hero will be helmed by the former artistic director of Sledgehammer Theatre, Kirsten Brandt.  

“Lonergan has a gift for colloquial speech, rhythm and humor,” Brandt says. “His characters are complex; they struggle with right and wrong. Theater should be a forum to discuss topical issues, and with Lonergan you can do just that.”

Kurner and Gercke would certainly agree, and they’re hoping that audiences “leave the theater feeling slightly more alive than when they entered.”

[The Waverly Gallery runs March 26-April 30, in the Studio Space at Jazzercise in Carlsbad; 760-433-3245; ]

©2005 Patté Productions Inc.