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Arts: Seniors who won’t go gentle into theater’s good night

By Charles Swenson
Coastal Observer

Chip Smith has lost his place. The six other actors on stage stop while he turns the pages of his book. Is it just one of those moments that happen in rehearsal, or one of those moments that happen in the lives of old folks? In the “Geriatric Monologues” you can’t be sure.

“Just because I am one doesn’t mean I have to be one” says Smith’s character.

The play is billed as a dramatic reading based on a book of poems by Jim Rogers, “Starts and Stops Along the Way.” Published four years ago, it is about to go into a second printing by the Prose Press of Pawleys Island. “Geriatric Monologues” opens Friday at the Murrells Inlet Community Theater for six performances in what will be the group’s final production. The theater board announced last month that a lack of interest from volunteer actors and crew members forced its decision to shut down after 18 years.

“We didn’t know that when we started,” Rogers said after a recent rehearsal at the Murrells Inlet Community Center. But a play about change, loss and a group of people unwilling to let go of life in spite of the indignities of aging might have been written for the occasion. “We’re not ready to let go yet,” says one of the characters.

The stage lights come up on seven rocking chairs. The scene: “The final porch of life.” The time: “The last years.”

One by one, the characters appear from behind black panels. “A lot of people don’t see old people,” says one character, who calls age “the disappear potion.” Each character is a variation of the author himself. Now 81, he was 77 when a book of poems by a friend arrived in the mail. “I said, ‘I can do this,’ ” Rogers recalled.

He found his own free verse focused on aging and it’s ultimate consequence. “There is very little serious poetry about the aging process,” Rogers said. One of the readers of his early drafts suggested his collection would make a good play. The idea stayed with him as he gave readings from “Starts and Stops.” For the last 23 years, Rogers has been a family-life and parenting counselor. Before that, he had a business career that included directing commercials and corporate media projects.

He had already grouped his poems by theme for the book, but he reorganized them for the play to match the character of the four women and three men to whom he gave allegorical names: Bernard Find, Melanie Memory, Charlie Content, Robert Rant, Jane Domore, James Lament and Sandra Fini. That made it easy to recast the role of Charlie from a man to a woman when one of his cast members dropped out late in the process.

“They’re all me,” Rogers said. “It’s mostly my life’s experience.” He takes the role of James Lament in the current production.

But the actors see themselves in the characters, said Sally Hare, Rogers’ wife and producer for the show. Due to the diminished volunteer pool at the theater, she is also backstage running the lights. “What’s been interesting is the change I’ve seen in the cast,” she said.

One actor told her he feels he has become like a Gray Panther activist about age discrimination.

Rogers hopes that bodes well for getting the audience to identify with the characters. Some of the brief monologues are episodic, scenes from lives that have become circumscribed. Others try to explain those moments. “Because we have less and less say so, or any power, or any sense of accomplishment or achievement, we do a whole lot of criticizing,” Robert Rant rants.

“Even the light pieces have a serious element,” Rogers said. “I hope the response is, ‘He’s talking about me.’ ”

Sandi Shackelford, a former professor of theater at Coastal Carolina University, helped Rogers with the direction. He will use that to polish the script of “Geriatric Monologues” for publication. It’s a play seniors or other community theater groups could perform. He’s also had interest from a community college that wants to use the play for its students, another sign that the work is on track. “I hope people will go away feeling differently about being old,” Rogers said.

They may even agree with another poet who wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day.”

If you go

What: “Geriatric Monologues” by Jim Rogers

When: June 17-18 and 24-25 at 7:30 p.m., June 19 and 26 at 2:30 p.m.

Where: Murrells Inlet Community Center, 4462 Murrells Inlet Rd.

How much: $15. Call 843-651-4152 for tickets

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