Old Woman in the Basement
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.