On October 14, 2011, Arena Players Repertory Theater took its final bow to a standing ovation for its last production in its original Farmingdale space, I Ought to be in Pictures. This location had been the hub for Long Island theatergoers for nearly 40 years. Now, after five years away, it’s back with a new name, Theater 294.
That night the lobby was a gathering of well wishers, including former actors lamenting the demise of what they considered their home, and displaced audience members who thought of Arena as their staple for fine entertainment. Tears flowed along with the champagne, served up by Long Island theater guru Fred DeFeis, whose rich tenure as artistic director and founder of the theater company spanned more than 60 years. DeFeis felt it was time to move from his Farmingdale home and start a new chapter bringing theater to the picturesque grounds of the Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport.
The old Farmingdale space remained dormant for almost six years until an entrepreneur named Marlo Roberson stopped by the old Arena theater hoping to see a play—only to discover boarded up doors and windows. This did not deter Roberson. He envisioned bringing the space back to its formative years, rich with original works as well as beloved classics, and some comedy nights sprinkled in for good measure—a kind of Off Off Broadway theater for Long Islanders. With the town of Farmingdale experiencing a resurgence, Roberson saw this theater drawing audiences to the area as it once did under the tutelage of DeFeis.
The Long Island Repertory Company was formed with a board representing some of Arena’s veteran actors, such as Judith Anderson, Adrienne Pellegrino, Kevin Cipriani, Charles Calabrese and playwright in residence Claude Solnick. It is now their job to schedule each season of theater at the newly acquired space.
Arena Players Second Stage was renamed Theater 294 in deference to its location at 294 Route 109 in Farmingdale, and its maiden voyage into the world of theater was launched on October 21 with Solnick’s original play, Lemon Tree. The play offers a poignant view of a relationship that blossoms between Claire (Judith Anderson) and Deuce (Kevin Hagan) who, in the twilight of their lives, meet at an assisted living facility.
It seems appropriate that this play was chosen to premiere in a theater rising up from the twilight of its life.
At the Sunday, October 30 matinee, the audience spanned all ages. During the intermission, an older couple approached Solnick and shared how their own relationship mirrored the one depicted onstage. The gentleman was wistful as he spoke.
Lemon Tree is a play for people in all stages of life—a son or daughter facing the decision of admitting a beloved parent into an assisted living situation, a grandchild visiting a grandparent at such a facility or, like Claire and Deuce, those needing assistance and facing the ugly truth that independence is no longer an option.
When we meet Claire, she has been ushered in to see The Willows assisted living facility by her daughter, Rebecca (Adrienne Pellegrino), who is an overwhelmed mother of two children. Rebecca admits to Rita (Jennifer Alexander) the facility administrator, “She is my mother and I love her, but she can’t live with us.” This supposed look-see turns into the permanent residence for Claire who balks at the notion and insists on going to her home in Florida. But Rebecca, with power of attorney, has already sold that home believing her mother can no longer live on her own, let alone travel to Florida unattended.
Enter Deuce, a resident, who confides he wound up here after his wife passed away and he broke his hip. “They carted me here,” he quips. While engaged in conversation, Deuce notices the lemon Claire clutches and he asks why she needs it. Claire is proud to report that she “stole the fruit from her daughter’s yard.” Her excuse is simply, “I love nature.”
Attracted by her feistiness, Deuce invites Claire to join him in the early morning on the lawn when the sprinklers sputter water illuminating the grass with hundreds of rainbows. These secret rendezvous help solidify their love, but time is fleeting and conflict interferes with the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s for Deuce. As he deteriorates, Claire’s strength comes to the fore. It seems there’s a wing in the facility for those suffering from Alzheimer’s—the Memory Ward. Claire is helpless to save Deuce from this fate since they aren’t relatives. “I wish I met you 50 years ago. Marry me,” she says.
Twists and turns follow for these two seniors who tragically met just as time is running out. Anderson brings great pathos to her role as Claire, helping this disengaged helpless woman transform into a warm, take-charge protector who desperately tries to save the man she has grown to love.
Hagan’s sensitive portrayal of Deuce runs the gamut, from a quipster to a caring soul, to a victim of a dreaded disease that erases all memory.
Pellegrino plays the daughter Rebecca perfectly. She is a tightrope walker filled with guilt for selling her mother’s Florida home and making life-changing decisions for a parent who is no longer capable of living independently.
Alexander, as Rita the facility administrator, emits the coolness of a professional who has seen too many seniors admitted through this one-way turnstile.
Lemon Tree valiantly takes audiences on a profound journey that all will face one day. The great question is how will that final chapter play out?
Performances continue at Theater 294, at 294 Farmingdale Road (Route 109), E. Farmingdale, Saturday, November 5 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, November 6 at 2 p.m. Find more at facebook.com/theater294.
Barbara Anne Kirshner is the author of the new musical Madison Weatherbee–The Different Dachshund, to be produced February 2017 by the South Shore Theatre Experience.