Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Gratitude for OWITB

This appeared in the November issue of

Review of Old Woman in the Basement 
by Susa Silvemarie 
In The Old Woman in the Basement, Gwenda Ledbetter’s character, Mariah, takes us along on her journey as she descends into the basement of her losses and grief. What makes Mariah’s sharing with the audience intimate is the second person point of view in which the play is written and delivered. As each subsequent loss is detailed in this direct address style, the audience is drawn closer and closer to Mariah’s own experience, until we absorb its heart wrenching challenges as our own. What makes Mariah’s sharing with the audience bearable is her unshakable humor, especially at the dramatic climax.
Ledbetter employs the Sumerian myth of Inanna as a corollary or illustration of Mariah’s journey, but more so, as a deepening. In another version of the Sumerian myth, Inanna descends to the Great Below, less out of compassion for her sister Ereshkigal, as out of courage and curiosity about her own subterranean strengths and treasures. Mariah Kincaid is this kind of Inanna, who, by remaining a steadfast honest witness to her many griefs and by holding as well to her indomitable humor, removes her own self from the hook of defeat and bereavement.
In our times, the experience of an old woman is seldom treated with the profound respect it deserves, seldom accorded mythological hero or divine Goddess status. This is a play for everyone since, at any age, we have shadows that bind us. But if we are fortunate, each of us will face the particular, inevitable losses of aging. It is high time for the authentic experiences of aging to be portrayed in the arts. I am grateful that Gwenda Ledbetter in The Old Woman in the Basement has given us such a portrayal.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review of the play

Reviews are coming to us from many different directions and we are finding that folks really got the story!  Here is a surprising review from a 20-something student in the Drama Program at ABTech Community College:

Old Woman in the Basement
Play Critique
            Strolling toward the green Christmas lights wrapped around the entrance of the North Carolina Stage Company, I was prepared to see the one-woman show Old Woman in the Basement. Inside, I stopped at concessions to grab a cookie, only to notice, I was in the lobby with an audience clearly three times my age. It made me feel rather young. The lights in the lobby flickered signaling the production was about to begin, so I made my way down the hallway of black curtains. Finding my seat on the left side of the room, I noticed I had a close view of down-stage right.
            The setting was an old dusty basement complete with an antique dresser, fallen over chairs, and blankets draped over couches; stairs led downward from back stage to center stage. They were piled high with a mess of old books. There was an old clock turned sideways, and a light reflecting the shape of a window. Ladders, brooms, and boxes of clothes were throughout the stage to complete the setting. As the overhead lights were a fainted blue, the mood looked dreary and gloomy.
            David Novak, the director, introduced himself and gave some background about NC Stage Company, informing the audience that Old Woman in the Basement is a part of their catalyst series. The idea of this production was to enhance their own programming while offering local companies the infrastructure to produce their best possible work. The production was incredibly successful with its intentions through its miraculous use of symbolism and conceivable story. Based on its budget, the production was definitely worth doing while understanding its shared risks being in the catalyst series.
The playwright, Gwenda LedBetter, was trying to accomplish the overall message that life is beautiful, and when you wake up and smell the roses, they will smell better than ever. An old woman, Mariah Kinkead, spent weeks living in a basement and was letting her life pass by. She was delusional and the basement symbolized her mood and being “stuck in a rut.” A few phone conversations with her daughter, Mary, helped Mariah realize that she was missing out on spending time with Mary. Taking the audience through a journey, it did not seem to make sense until the end. Once Mariah figured out what was going on in her life, it seemed everyone else could put the pieces together.
The major piece of the play was to have someone fit the part of the Old Woman, and the playwright, herself, was the perfect fit. Her acting was phenomenal, as LedBetter had a vision and it showed. Entering through the stairs back stage, the Old Woman came down leaving a party that was being held upstairs. She had her audience captured from the moment she entered the stage, with too much champagne, to the last convincing phone conversation she had with her daughter before she went back upstairs. The audience appraised LedBetter’s performance with a standing ovation.
            David Novak’s direction helped execute the story in its proper course. Notably, there was clever usage of props, as different devices were introductions into stories and memories of Mariah’s past. She had a ring of keys, one that was to the front door, which she swore she would never use again. Another key belonged to the only station wagon the family once had. The deck of cards, in which she played solitaire, reminded her of how lonely it was to be isolating in the basement. The only sound was the repeating noise of the Mariah’s cell phone that she often struggled to use. It was always Mary trying to get a hold of her, which ingeniously symbolized a call back to reality. The director’s symbolism of these props only amplified Mariah’s powerful final scene, where everything tied together.     
The costume choices were well done, as they were simple and not a distraction. In the opening scene, the Old Woman wore a purple scarf, a light blue cardigan, a wide-brimmed black hat, with black pants and sandals. The only thing that changed was the color of her cardigan to symbolize a new day in the basement. The lights moderately changed from yellow to blue symbolize a new scene, a new day, or a new mood.
The script was well done, as it included all the parts of a strong story from its exposition to its emotional climax to its influential resolution. The writer, Gwenda LedBetter, did an excellent job creating a narrative about a realistic struggle in an elder’s life.          
After the audience had given the play a standing ovation, Jason Mraz’s song I’m Yours filled the room and everyone shuffled out. Taking a last few glimpses of the stage, the crew came behind me cleaning up the trash. Returning to the hallway of the long black curtain, I had to pace myself behind an elderly woman. It only made me take a second to stop and think about the profound message and clever symbolism that was portrayed in Old Woman in the Basement.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Taking Care of John

             This line is in my soon-to-be-opened show Old Woman In The Basement:“So Joseph stopped going to meetings. He stayed home and I stayed with him and watched him disappear. I wiped up his pee, went after him when he wandered off, smiled when he twisted my arm too hard, and one day, it was too much. I drove him to SAFE HAVEN ALZHEIMER'S  UNIT and said, “Take him!”
            The decision to put a loved one in a dementia unit is heartbreaking. I cared for my husband John at home, watching him deteriorate,  for eight years. On the night of my 79th birthday, my daughter took me out to dinner. The food was lovely so was the wine, but best of all was the conversation, not having to say, “ Do this,” and “ Don't do that.” John was in the night wandering stage.
His doctor prescribed a new pill guaranteed to  put him out for the evening. The sitter (It isn't easy to find one.) forgot the pill. At three in the morning, I hear a bumping. John is up, putting up shades, pulling them down, up...down, up...down. I follow him around saying, “Come to bed. It's late.We need some sleep. “ He turns and looks at me with half -mad eyes that have no recognition in them and I lose it.Banging my head on the wall, (yes! I really did.) I say, “I can't do this anymore.” In a couple of weeks, he was in a dementia unit and the guilt and grieving started.
            People said, “I'm sorry you had to put him in one of those places, but you do have to take care of yourself.” I'd smile, and nod. Inside I was screaming I want him back, but, of course, I wanted him the way he was.
            John was diagnosed early enough to try and teach me about our finances. I do not have a mathematical mind. The money sessions would end in me screaming and John confused so we'd eat or go for a walk. There was an oak tree on our road. When we came to it, John would stop look up and say, “How beautiful.” I'd say, “Come on.” One day,  I went back , stood beside him and looked up. It was beautiful and for that moment everything else was, too. 
             John was a neurologist so he knew all there was to know about Alzheimer's. He told my cousin Lew that it would be a lot harder on me than on him. I'm not so sure. There must have been moments when a symptom would manifest and he'd think, “ I'm getting worse.”He never told me what to expect. Probably afraid I'd go screaming down the road. When his speech went, he'd laugh and then weep when he saw me. He did that till he died two years ago.
            My children took me to see the sequioas and the redwoods this summer. A ranger who looked about twelve said, “The redwoods do not sink their roots deep. They twine them together so, in a way, they are holding each other up.” My grown children and my friends have been twining ever since. All of us who take care of those with Alzheimer's, or some physical infirmity have roots wound together.
When we tell our stories, we keep others and ourselves from toppling over.

I wrote this as guest writer for Judi Leavenworth's blog: Desperate Caregivers

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


I went with my two daughters and my thirteen year old granddaughter out to Hop'N Blueberry Farm
on Saturday. The owner, Mr. Burnette, raises hops for the local brewerys and  on beyond the vines of hops is a butterfly house, full of flowers, a misting waterfall and butterflies. One monarch lit on my granddaughter Molly's head and stayed and stayed and stayed.There were clouds in the sky over the Black Mountains close by. bluebirds and goldfinch flew with those chittering sounds. Beautiful. Before we left, my daughters, both teachers, bought twigs bearing the celadon green Monarch chrysalis that look like jewelry. My oldest daughters chrysalis hatched the next day and is gone on to where he was going.
I feel like that chrysalis as the days count down to our opening. The word "opening" takes on new meaning.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Off Script

In writing the script for Old Woman, some stories were scratched because of length or lack of relevance..Like this one which as far as I know is true. My good friend Virginia from the Eastern Shore passed it onto me. it's the kind of tale that spreads around a small town like wildfire starting always with " Did you hear...? " ( the names have been changed)
    May Frances Parker and G.T. Shreves were the most talented drinkers in town.They attended all the parties where liquor was served and were the last to leave. One night, they managed to out stay the liquor as well as the other guests. They made it to G.T's car. He was the designated driver that night. He made it to May Frances' house, traveling down the back roads. He drove into her drive
but May Frances was out. She  would not wake up so he drove on to his house, and leaving her in the car, staggered inside and fell into bed.
     The next morning he was on his second cup of coffee when he remembered... May Frances! He ran to the car Where he found her not only passed out, but passed on. G.T. jumps in the car and drives to Waddell's Funeral Home where Tim Waddell says, "I can't take her, G.T. You have to have a certificate from the coroner saying she's dead,"  to which G.T. replied, "Any fool with one good eye and half a brain can see she's dead!Tim said he didn't care he had to have that certificate so G.T left to go into town and look for the coroner with May Frances riding beside him looking no worse than she had at the party.
      Sam White,  the coroner, had gone to Norfolk , but no one knew  that. G.T rode all over town with May Frances beside him and couldn't find him. When noon came, G.T felt the need for a little libation, liquid of course, and stopped at the restaurant, leaving May Frances, of course, in the car.
Claudine Parks walked past the car on her way to the cleaners, saw May Frances and stopped to talk about Garden Club business. Afterwards, she said, "I could have sworn she said something. I know she nodded her head."G.T. came out of the restaurant and took off looking for Sam having no clue of the May Frances' conversation.
    Sam came home and heard of G.T.s dire need of him. So he took off looking for G.T.  but could not find him. So the whole town divided up into posses.Cars on all the streets even down in the necks in the fishing villages. Finally,  someone remembered G.T's habits. They found him down at the wharf , beer bottle held high extolling the sunset  May Frances beside him enjoying it to, in her quiet way.

We have a campaign to seek support for our expenses as we move towards the full production of our play at BC Stage in November. You can help! Go to this link on to see our project: 


Battery Park Roof Garden

On the morning of September the 24th, Steve Boyer came here to take the “Basement Steps” of the play apart, take them to the to the top floor of the Battery Park and re-assemble them. I went down town around ten and sat at table with David Novak and Steve while they finished their blueberry muffins and coffee.We tried the microphone because the room's ceiling is high making sound hooty. Then Steve put the sides on the steps. I walk to the top, David the director, listens. An African-American man comes in to sweep, says his name is Charles. Says he was a bell captain, “in the olden days.”I tell him of listening to hundreds of children singing in that room, auditioning for Johnny Haber's Tanglewood Children'sTheatre, wanting to be mice in Cinderella or munchkins in Wizard of Oz.We sigh for the olden days.
Out on the roof, an elderly man named Fred tells me he's lived two lives. “The first about mind and body. This one is about soul.”
That night, the room fills up, maybe fifty people. The western sun is seen behind tall curtains Steve put up to keep the light out of my eyes.Steve wanted a story. I tell a mountain tale about Old One Eye .Vera, one of the residents in this residence for the elderly,grins. She's lived in Asheville all her life.
Lightheaded from the laughter following the story, I introduce David who introduces me and sets the stage for the first scene. I walk up the steps. The ceiling is way up there. Not close to my head like in my basement. I think, “What am I doing here? I'm afraid of heights.” Turn and lose the words for a second that feels like an hour.The scene ends with Mariah, reading, “There was an old woman who went up in a basket nineteen times as high as the moon.” Applause. I tell of a trip out to California to see the redwoods. “Their roots don't go deep. They intertwine. So those trees taller than any others end up holding each other up.”So ended the first presentation.

We have a campaign to seek support for our expenses as we move towards the full production of our play at BC Stage in November. You can help! Go to this link on to see our project: 

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


     The basement steps are done for Old Woman in the Basement.Steve Boyer brought them here to the house so I could practice and balance on them. There is a sturdy railing for me to grab, lean against, put my hat on. I'd like to get the picture of them on here. I'll get in touch with young Kim my blog master. Steve and his wife Ruth are helping get Old Woman  on the stage. They are remarkable.
They retired from their steward work on airlines, came to this city to enter into life and the community working backstage and on with the Community theater. Steve works for the Council for the Aging, Ruth, for the Biltmore Conservancy. Steve is part of David Novak's Telling Experience, making shows happen technically. He's a past president of Asheville's Storytelling Circle. Ruth sang Star Spangled Banner the hardest song to sing in the world at a recent baseball game. And made those rockets truly glare. I'm lucky to have their help.
      I was thinking about the structure of Old Woman the other day. It started life in Tommy Hay's Smoky Mountain Creative Writing Workshop. something like three or four years ago. My first one woman Friday's Father  came from writing I did there. In my personal life, I was into the second year of my husband John being in a facility for Alzheimers patients. Back when he was diagnosed with it, I came "off the road' with storytelling and turned to writing for expression. I'm not sure when the basement came into it. I remember telling Tommy, "I'm thinking of writing a play about an old woman who takes herself in anger down to stay in her own basement.' (Reckon I was headed into mine grieving John) and Tom says,"Well, we have to get her back up those stairs."
    At some point I found the Glen Ackerman book on monologues/one person plays.  He has a section in the first of it about the history telling of Ruth Draper and Cornelia Otis Skinner as pioneers. On that first read,I remembered seeing Skinner on a visit to Queens College, in Charlotte NC. sixty years ago. She wore a long dress and had great trailing  veils that she flung about. I do not remember a  single word she said. In the last scene I do a bit of posturing and flinging. I just realized where that came from!
     Old Woman is archetypal. Someone told me this lately and I nodded. I did not think I will now sit down and write an archetypal play. I realized its connection to the ancient myth of Inanna early  in the writing. Diane Wolkstein , writer with Stanley Kramer of the fine Inanna; Her stories and hymns. listened to it , saying Sadie is so-and so, connecting my characters to the ones in the ancient myth.
   Now, I'm thinking of the Moth ,the now prevalent short stories of NOW.  I gave myself a great chuckle wondering if people lived their lives so it would make a good story. The truth as I see it is even the short bursts of NOW have the first times embedded in them. Are you nodding? This needs another sentence. But if  I go back to the first times right now, I won't get out the door to talk to Valerie about advertising or pick up Tamara to clean or the Moth story of the day. So...see ya.