In 1981, Ernest Thompson’s play On Golden Pond was made into an Oscar-winning movie starring Katherine Hepburn and Jane and Henry Fonda. That same year, Hepburn opened at the Ahmanson and on Broadway in Thompson’s next play, The West Side Waltz, reveling in her role as a grande dame living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
More than 40 years later, Thompson has tweaked the West Side Waltz script and it’s being produced on our own Westside, at the magical Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum. The drive to Topanga Canyon on a summer weekend is a kind of waltz itself, hugging the curves, pausing for refreshments, sharing a moment.
I suggest making a day of it, meandering through Santa Monica to visit a gallery or two (I took in the latest book-inspired work of Debra Disman. Then on to an exhibit at the Topanga Canyon Gallery). Plan for dinner at the Inn of the Seventh Ray or Endless Color. And finally, feeling those bohemian vibrations, wind your way through the leafy coolness toward the theater
The play is lovely, the setting serene (except for an occasional souped-up motorcycle tearing through the canyon) and the acting terrific.
Three Geers take the outdoor stage: Ellen Geer, the theater’s Artistic Director since before the premiere of the original West Side Waltz, plays the Hepburn role, the aging concert pianist Margaret Mary Elderdice. Ellen’s sister Melora Marshall plays Cara Varnum, an eccentric and lonely neighbor who plays violin. And Ellen’s daughter Willow Geer plays Robin Bird, who takes a job as the widow Elderdice’s companion and helper.
Miguel Perez, as building super Serge, and Charles Lin, as an attorney and love interest for Robin, round out the excellent cast. Mary Jo DuPrey directs with love and care.
Despite updates by the playwright, The West Side Waltz remains firmly ensconced in the early ‘80s. Robin finds Mrs. Elderdice from an index card on a bulletin board—the Craigslist of that era. The rise of what would come to be called AIDS is the subject of confused news coverage and protests. Pre-War Upper West Side buildings still contain a hodgepodge of rich and poor, with heating problems and nary a hedge fund operator.
These were simpler times, but not easy times. The play brings together disparate characters who today would probably never meet, and beautifully builds their support for and acceptance of each other’s troubles and failings. The crotchety and declining Mrs. Elderdice has her finger on the pulse of society’s decay: she’s right, but that doesn’t make her fun to be around. Today, she would be paying through the nose for a caregiver less willing to tolerate her nastiness, and less likely to soften it.
The portrait of a time and situation, the top-level acting and direction, the beautiful setting—The West Side Waltz is a summer evening’s perfect enhancement.
The West Side Waltz runs through October 1 at Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd. Show times vary since the theater is shared with other plays; a full list of dates is here. Tickets range from $-60. Friday, July 29 is a pay-what-you-will performance (cash only at the door) at 7:30 p.m.