Assisted Living, a world-premiere play by Seattle writer Katie Forgette, opens in an assisted-living facility that is actually a lightly veneered prison: bars on the windows, linoleum trim, dull gray-blue tile, cheap office furniture, and a photo of a smiling President Dick Cheney. This is the near future, where the economy is on the verge of collapse, and senior citizens have to pay for any medical treatment that might be even obliquely related to their former lifestyles (such as eating). They also have to pay for “toiletries,” including colostomy bags. Those who can’t pay, or those who make a fuss about the situation, are sent to the “first floor,” a land of permanent sedation and light rotation over a heat source to keep them alive. Or maybe they just get killed. Nobody has ever been to the “first floor” and come back to describe it.
The production’s unarticulated but looming argument is twofold. First: If you remove the social-ish (not socialist) safety net and let businesses run the show, they’ll be much quicker to kill off the sick and unprofitable than any liberal-democratic “Obamacare” bureaucracy. Second: If you’re living in a death camp—even if it pretends to be cheerful—the power of theater can save the day.
The lobby of Assisted Living is the gathering place for a few old folks—a woman who used to be a nurse and still does her own unofficial “rounds” (Laura Kenny), an old hell-raiser whose youth has landed him with dangerously unprofitable health problems (Jeff Steitzer), and a peacemaking sweetheart (Marianne Owen). This lobby is also the workplace for a vicious and exasperated nurse (Julie Briskman, playing a part clearly based on Nurse Ratched with similar contained fury) and a goofball orderly (Tim Gouran), who is a parolee and toes the company line because he doesn’t know any better. As it turns out, he has a good heart. He just needs the old folks to rouse it from its callow slumber.
A retired actor in a bow tie (Kurt Beattie) arrives and upends everything by being nice but sane—he doesn’t bow to every whim of the institution—and wanting to read plays with the other inmates/retirees. Those clandestine readings metastasize into something like a real-deal community, bringing people together on their own terms, for their own pleasure, and eventually building the relationships that allow them to conspire against their situation. Despite its plot about bureaucracy and rebellion, Assisted Living (directed by the playwright’s husband, R. Hamilton Wright) is sweet and funny, a lighter riff on some of the themes from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and a chance to watch Seattle theater people who’ve been working together for years have a lark together. I suspect that longtime Seattle theatergoers will enjoy the production more than first-timers who’ve never seen these people onstage before.
The chemistry between Beattie and Owen (who are married in real life) is especially charming—tender, with a small bite of mischief. During the old-folks’ Christmas pageant, Beattie (playing Joseph) asks Owen (playing Mary), “Do you mind?” and gives her a peck on the lips. She deadpans: “I’m pregnant.” Big audience laugh. He says, raising his eyebrows: “I’m a better kisser than I thought.” Bigger laugh.
Those small, confectionary moments keep Assisted Living light, but the world it posits is grim. If the social safety net is actually removed, and theater can’t actually save the day, the audience is left with a third option: Live fast, die young, and save Social Security.