Tina Howe’s new play, at Primary Stages (which I saw just before it opened on 4/4/09), continues her career-long exploration of the foibles of blue-blood families and the women they oppress. This version of the story regards a patrician woman toward the end of a distinguished life, who finds herself—thanks to her feckless son—ripped summarily from a life spent as a painter in Boston and stashed in a nursing home in the Bronx.

Jane Alexander plays Catherine Sargent (fictionalized cousin to the great American painter John Singer Sargent), wearing a head full of long, flowing white hair and radiating the wasted vitality of someone stored to wait for her death much too early. Even curled up in a bitter fetal position at the beginning of many scenes, Alexander retains the play’s focus. Her intelligence and charisma as Catherine helps push a play that might have been a predictable trifle into more compelling evening.

Alexander’s terrific partner in this transformation is Lynn Cohen, who finds the humanity, warmth, and comedy in a character suffering the beginnings of Alzheimer’s disease. Cohen plays Rennie Waltzer, who becomes Catherine’s new roommate at the nursing home, bringing with her a large and loud family of Long Island Jews (played by Julie Halston, David Margulies, among others).

Director Michael Wilson brings the actors performing as the Jewish family close to stereotype—that fine line between laughing at and laughing with is walked here—but manages to make them familiar but particular, with individual stories that keep them from falling squarely into type.

Rennie’s husband Herschel died several years before, sending her quickly into an emotional and mental spiral down toward losing her mind. She thinks that Herschel is still alive, calling out to him to observe the things that amuse her—frequently—in her new life. Rennie thinks she’s living in a four-star hotel, much to Catherine’s dismay.

Catherine’s plaint is that she’s trapped in a place she finds far beneath her; her burden is that she’s now blind, and truly can’t care for herself. Her son, Royal (Jack Gilpin, in an appropriately sedate turn as the ineffectual middle-aged man), is a Yeats professor at Columbia who moves her to New York thinking he’ll participate in her care and see her often. But his stressful academic life limits his availability, and he winds up leaving her warehoused, isolated, and lonely.

Catherine’s acidic fury at being left to die among strangers she openly finds inferior requires Alexander to convey a complicated set of emotions. On one hand, her anger makes her caustic and her arrogance can be tiring. On the other hand, the audience wants to empathize with a woman who’s clearly still smart and healthy. Catherine is a blind painter, who has to conjure her favorite images—especially Manet’s Déjeuner sur L’Herbe—from an old and deep mental archive. The injustice of watching someone who loves light and color no longer be able to see is enough to draw spectators to the character.

That blindness is Catherine’s only challenge raises disability politics that Howe doesn’t seem to consider.Why couldn’t Royal have found help for her at her own home in Boston? Why couldn’t Catherine learn to get around with a cane or a guide dog? But Chasing Manet is a comedy, which apparently lets Howe off the hook for not thinking very deeply about the logistics of her central metaphor.

The nursing home is indeed demeaning, as Catherine claims when she’s invited to toss around a beach ball that a well-meaning physical therapist suggests to his charges is molten lava. Catherine simply refuses to play, sitting off to the side wearing her own sour whimsy—she’s splattered a pair of spectacles with red paint and crashes into the physical therapy scene calling herself Oedipus. When no one rises to her joke—most of the others are wheelchair bound, while Catherine is mobile and strong—she sits outside the circle, sulking.

The play clarifies that the indignities of aging aren’t suffered only by the rich and by those still for the most part mentally and physically intact. The beach ball scene, and other interactions between the staff and the residents, shows how the elderly are infantilized, even by personnel as well meant as those Howe creates here. Played with sensitivity and humor by Vanessa Aspillaga and Rob Riley—the only two actors of color in the cast—the nursing home staffers are entirely empathetic, seeing the people with whom they work as people to respect and engage. But even for them, it’s clearly difficult to keep from speaking down to people who are, in fact, losing control of their bodies and their minds.

Sometimes the play wants us to identify with Catherine’s son and Rennie’s daughter, who’ve enrolled their respective parents in this circumscribed life because there seemed no other choice. Howe writes both characters scenes in which they express their fear at losing their parent, and both are given ample reasons for their decision about where to let their mother end her life. In other scenes, Howe wants us to feel the indignities of aging and losing control of your own agency.

Aside from Cohen and Alexander, the nursing home residents are played quite over the top by the other actors (all of whom rotate through multiple roles as family members and friends, nursing staff and residents). They select physical and emotional mannerisms—based on the excesses of Howe’s text in these scenes—that push their characters into caricatures. One is a sex-obsessed elderly gentleman who can’t keep his hands out of his pants. Another is paranoid and fearful; another dotty and weird, with uncontrolled facial tics (Halston, overacting as an old woman here, while she’s more reserved and effective as Rennie’s daughter, Rita). That these scenes push into the absurd and grotesque undercuts the critique Howe wants to launch of how older people are treated by their families.

Assisted by topnotch actors like Alexander and Cohen, Catherine and Rennie retain the story’s focus.Rennie’s exuberant love of life begins to thaw Catherine’s icy Brahmin reserve. And once Catherine realizes that Rennie, who at least can see, could be a partner in her plan to escape from the prison of assisted living, the two strike up an unlikely friendship that gives Rennie back her dignity and Catherine back her heart.

As farfetched as Chasing Manet’s resolution might really be, it’s a pleasure to see two strong older female characters get what they want and deserve (see Howe’s conversation with Jane Alexander). That they enable one another, and wrest back control of their lives, immersing themselves in pleasures and choices their children prematurely decided they should lose, lets Chasing Manet sound a triumphal, hopeful note. Watching Alexander and Cohen play off of one another in elegantly timed, warm repartee reminded me of Angela Lansbury and Marian Seldes in Terrence McNally’s Deuce a few seasons back. That two-hander gave the older actors more complex live stories but less to do, as they sat watching a tennis match and reminiscing about their lives of competition with one another and the tour. In Chasing Manet, women who should by rights be less mobile are ironically empowered to travel—literally and figuratively. Perhaps that difference comes from Howe’s career-long attention to women’s plight, and her determination that neither age nor gender should hold a good woman back.

The Feminist Spectator

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