nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
March 1, 2009
Freedom 85!, Hi-D Theatre Productions contribution to this year's FRIGID Festival, begins in a diner on a Tuesday afternoon. Sitting at a table in this place are a couple of friends, Fred and Sybil. Fred is in his 80s. He is hunched, crotchety, always looking for a waitress, and hard of hearing. His companion, Sybil, is 85. She is sweet, patient, talkative, and English. And evidenced by her willingness to serve coffee at the request of the short order cook who is missing his one and only waitress, she loves this diner.
Then again, this particular Tuesday might be different. For one thing, it is the waitress's first day on the job. For another, Sybil has on this very day escaped from her nursing home, a place Fred refers to as "The Morgue."
The waitress arrives. Her name is Kate and she is terribly unprepared for this job. She has no experience. She gets every order wrong and isn't close to absorbing the diner's frantic tempo or cleaning up the mess she's making.
Kate needs this job though. She has been sober for one month and in the process of getting her life on track. When Kate encounters Sybil, need meets need and an agreement is struck: Kate helps Sybil break back into the house she was taken from when placed in the nursing home, and Sybil hires Kate to be her caretaker.
This arrangement is not without complications, one of which is that Kate's condition has left her somewhat incapable of caring for herself, an opinion shared by Sybil's son, Duff. ("It's his father that gave him that name," she is always quick to point out.) Duff is wary but allows the arrangement because he recognizes his mother's need for self-reliance. Kate respects his skepticism, though, because she recognizes it as her own. She is genuinely appreciative of the opportunity to make it work.
Sybil's conflicts runs deeper and it is in the telling of her story that Freedom 85! finds most of its substance. Sybil is at a transitional phase in her life: her mind remains alert but her body won't go along for the ride. She is on the cusp of losing her independence and the show does a wonderful job of showing why such a loss would matter. In a series of flashbacks and anecdotes, we are treated to scenes of her youth: meeting her husband by spilling drinks on him at a dance; dragging her younger sister into a bomb shelter during an air raid; driving an ambulance through dangerous territory during the war. These scenes combined with others involving various members of her immediate community display an unwillingness to let go of the vibrancy and tenacity that have guided her entire life. Surrendering control would require her to relinquish a cherished aspect of her personality.
Luckily, she is surrounded by a friendly group of people who care about her well being, and it is this sense of community that makes Freedom 85! a generous outing. Dysfunction exists, but it stems from the consequences of their choices and the curve balls life has thrown rather than perceived slights, insecurities, or hidden agendas. They may bicker but they recognize each others' needs and accept one another in good faith. Such generosity makes their world an enjoyable place to visit.
Freedom 85! is made more enjoyable still by reason of all 12 characters being brought to life by two actresses. Andrea Risk and Debra Hale skillfully shift characters within scenes and sometimes within conversations. It's immensely satisfying, for example, watching Risk trade lines with herself as both Sybil and Duff while playing cards as two of a foursome. Both play characters ranging in race, age, body type, and social status. The style takes some adjustments: there were times in the frantic opening in which it wasn't always clear what was happening, but Risk and Hale's characterizations combined with director Kim Blackwell's rough but clear staging make the overall action easy to follow.