In a Tender "Just Another Day", Memory Loss is Leavened by Laughter
By Terry Byrne BostonGlobe correspondent
Dan Lauria and Jodi Long in "Just Another Day" at Great Barrington Public Theater.
GREAT BARRINGTON — At first glance, “Just Another Day” exudes a poignant sense of loss. But within moments, playwright Dan Lauria (TV’s “Wonder Years” and “Sullivan & Son,” onstage in Boston in “A Christmas Story”) shifts to joy — celebrating relationships, the pleasure of creativity, and the hope that laughter brings — for a play that is both tender and uplifting.
Presented by Great Barrington Public Theater, “Just Another Day” unfolds on a park bench where the Man (Lauria), who had a career as a comic, and the Woman (a luminous Jodi Long), who was a celebrated poet, sit and chat as they try to remember their connection to each other. In Act I, the banter is barbed as the Man tries to jog the Woman’s memories of their time together. The pressure to remember puts her on the defensive and she strikes back with her overstuffed “lexical treasury” of devastating insults that require a dictionary to feel their full weight. Rather than find common ground the duo seems to be moving farther apart, until he begins talking about old movies, unleashing shared memories of “His Girl Friday,” “My Man Godfrey,” and “Gunga Din,” and she offers a hilarious imitation of Bette Davis.
In Act II the roles are reversed and the Woman must coax the now-morose Man to return to one of his famous routines, which Lauria delivers with practiced ease, along with some eye-rolling jokes. When they worry about how to live today when they can’t recall yesterday, the poet reminds the comic she once served as his sounding board and they should simply start fresh. They work together, creating new building blocks to develop jokes for him and new story lines for her.
Their interactions are occasionally discouraged — no touching — by a bell, a reminder that they are not independent any longer but part of a carefully monitored community that is mindful of their safety. Although they resent the bell’s interruptions, it serves as an anchor to their present circumstances.
Anyone who has conversed with a loved one struggling with memory loss will recognize the fear and frustration of trying to assemble the pieces of one’s life into some coherent order. But they will also notice the comfort that sometimes comes with the retelling of old stories. In the program notes, Lauria says the play was inspired by his visits to an old friend who is in memory care and has difficulty remembering friends and family. But his friend’s memories of the New York Yankees are sharp and detailed and telling those stories often helps him reconnect to the present.
Lauria and Long bring this sometimes irascible, always engaging couple to vivid life. While Lauria is goofy and charming, Long (an Emmy Award winner for “Dash & Lily” and Lauria’s costar in “Sullivan & Son”) creates a convincing arc, starting with the Woman’s initial wary and watchful stance and then warming over the course of the play without ever losing any of her sharp wit.
All of the action takes place on and around a park bench, the simplicity of which is reinforced by set designers Christopher and Justin Swader’s postcard-like backdrop that shifts in mood with the help of Matthew E. Adelson’s subtle lighting. Guided by director James Glossman, that simple setting gives these two pros the space to display their considerable acting chops. Both Lauria and Long create nuanced, vulnerable characters who never elicit pity but instead inspire hope. When at one point, the Woman confesses she can only see an image of the past, but there’s no reflection, the Man responds, “I still see you.”
That tender moment isn’t allowed to turn maudlin, however, since they each return to creating comic bits. However damaged their memories are, the Man says, “We must remember to laugh.”
JUST ANOTHER DAY
Play by Dan Lauria. Directed by James Glossman. Presented by Great Barrington Public Theater. At McConnell Theater, Bard College at Simon’s Rock, Great Barrington.