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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, July 04, 2003

An interesting ride An interesting ride (July 04, 2003)

Solid performance helps drive 'Vehicle'

by Christina Ziegler-McPherson

"V ehicle" is a play about one family's journey through life and illness, but like many family car trips, it faces the challenges of getting warmed up, staying on track and not running out of gas. For the most part, the new Pear Avenue Theatre production succeeds.

Peninsula playwright Elyse Melmon wrote "Vehicle" as part of the Pear's New Play Development program, using her work to explore the theme of mother-daughter relationships in the face of long-term illness. In the case of "Vehicle," suburban housewife Christina Cantor (Neva Marie) comes to grip with her mother's descent into Alzheimer's, while struggling to navigate her own way through marriage, parenthood and career.

With a title like "Vehicle," car and driving motifs are threaded, of course, throughout the play, representing mobility, freedom and independence. Grandmother Claudia Herwitz's loss of these things -- along with her mind -- is at the heart of "Vehicle."

We first encounter Christina and her mother, Claudia (Martha Stookey), in two prologues, both set in San Francisco. The first, set in 1958, features Claudia giving Christina a lesson in driving and early women's lib. The second vignette is set five years later, and features Christina and Claudia again in the car, as Christina discusses her future education and career aspirations and tells Claudia about the new man in her life, medical student Jason Cantor (Patrick Brady). Jason, as Christina tells Claudia, is a future surgeon who likes to race cars, an appropriate hobby for someone who is later accused of playing fast and loose with the wives of his surgery patients. Granddaughter Kim (Paz Hilfinger-Pardo) is introduced in 1988 as a learner-permit teenager, eager for her license and her own set of wheels, representing freedom and independence from home and parents.

The Cantors symbolize many Peninsula families: white, professional, upper-middle class. They have a house with a swimming pool, their daughter attends private school and Jason makes enough money so Christina can afford to stay home as a full-time mother. For "Vehicle," the Cantors' spacious, comfortable home is all imagined; the set consists of a refrigerator, an island counter with two bar stools, a two-chair table set, a coffee table with books and a love seat.

Once the play enters contemporary times, it quickly becomes clear that Claudia's absentmindedness is more serious than simply old age. Claudia moves in with her daughter and son-in-law and increasingly begins to exhibit the behavioral and personality changes associated with Alzheimer's.

The strength of "Vehicle" is in Stookey's performance as Claudia. She dominates every scene she is in, which is nearly all of them. Just as Claudia is the strongest member of her family, Stookey is the strongest member of the cast. Her scenes are powerful and convincing; one can easily believe she is a sharp-witted, quick-tongued, high-expectations Granny.

Marie's scenes with Brady are less convincing. But this is more because of the way the story is written than because of any fault with the performers. "Vehicle" is billed as a play about a woman's journey through middle age, but Melmon's writing of the Claudia character, coupled with Stookey's performance, really makes the play more about her decline into dementia than about Christina's travails with her mother and her husband. This is understandable, since Melmon's inspiration for "Vehicle" was her own mother-in-law's diagnosis with the degenerative disease (she developed her work in

The storyline is shakier, however, when the spotlight is on Christina and Jason's marital problems, primarily because Melmon does not tie these difficulties to Claudia's situation. As Melmon almost certainly knows, the long-term illness of a loved one puts an immense strain on a marriage, particularly if the couple are the primary caregivers to the ill relative, as Christina and Jason are with Claudia. "Vehicle" would be much more moving and believable if the subplot of the Cantors' marriage was used to reinforce the primary story of Claudia's illness and the family's struggles to take care of her.

Another asset to the production is the Pear's 40-seat venue, in which the absence of a curtain between the audience and the actors creates a strong intimacy. Everyone is at stage level, and actors enter from behind curtains to the left and right, rather as if they were walking on stage from another room.

I saw "Vehicle" on its second night, and some scenes -- particularly in the first act -- appeared stiff and awkward, as if the players were still trying to get comfortable in their characters. Although the play has been in rehearsal since early May, dialogue and interactions among the four-member cast sounded unnatural, read rather than spoken. This wrinkle should be smoothed out after a few nights, once the cast gets a rhythm that works for them.

What: "Vehicle," written by Woodside playwright Elyce Melmon. The dramatic work is the first play of the Pear Avenue Theatre's second season and is directed by Jeanie Forte. It is a world premiere.

Where: Pear Avenue Theatre, 1220 Pear Ave. (off Shoreline Boulevard, near Century 16 Theatres), Suite K, in Mountain View.

When: Through July 13. Show times are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. (no performance Friday, July 4, additional 2 p.m. matinee on July 12); Sundays at 7 p.m. on July 6 and 2 p.m. on July 13.

Cost: Tickets are $15 general admission; $10 students and seniors.

Info: Call (650) 254-1148 or visit


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