Ashley DiFranza, Contributing Critic - Boston
Greater Boston Stage Company opened its 20th Anniversary season with the world premiere of “Last Night at Bowl-Mor Lanes,” by Weylin Symes. This play tells the story of Ruth and Maude, two women “of a certain age,” who break into their hometown bowling alley the night before it gets shut down and turned into a Walmart. While they enter the building anticipating a heartfelt goodbye and perhaps one last bowling match to conclude a decades-long rivalry, what they don’t expect to encounter are the surprise guests, unearthed secrets from their pasts, and the deep emotions that rise to the surface as they reflect on their years spent in the establishment. As this story unfolds, Ruth and Maude come to realize that the closing of this bowling alley actually represents the closing of an important chapter in their lives, and by the time the lights finally go down on Bowl-Mor Lanes, both the characters and audiences alike are left with a newfound understanding of what it means to have to move forward, even when it’s easier to look back.
Despite its protagonists being older women who not all patrons might automatically be able to relate to, this play does a great job of creating characters and developing themes that reach audiences of all ages. Much of this success is due to the performances of Nancy E. Carroll and Paula Plum, whose humorous yet honest depictions of Ruth (Carroll) and Maude (Plum) have audiences invested from the moment they break into the bowling alley by—slowly—climbing in through a window.
Alongside Carroll and Plum’s charming performances, the elements in Greater Boston Stage Company’s production which stand out the most revolve around the actual bowling that takes place in this show. In his note from the playwright, Symes explains that this piece came to be when he thought to himself, “How cool would it be to watch someone bowl on stage?” and it’s clear that this concept has not only come to frame the story, but has also been embraced in the development of the physical world of this play, as well.
The first way audiences encounter the significance of bowling in this production is with scenic designer, James J. Fenton’s, incredible set. The 1950’s-themed bowling alley is created as the perfect contradiction: from the audience it feels both expansive and intimate, run-down and yet clearly once well-maintained, slightly tacky and yet overwhelmingly charming. Yet with elements like a light-up jukebox, newspaper-covered windows, and a broken “Bowl-Mor Lanes” sign hanging overhead, this set also creates the perfect backdrop to this story of passing time and the changes that inevitably come with it.
If the set and the performances by the leading ladies weren’t enough, director Bryn Boice’s impressive approach to depicting live bowling on stage warrants the trip to Stoneham to see this production. Boice makes impeccable use of Fenton’s set, which includes a single bowling “lane” that disappears off stage so that the pins cannot be seen, and a return-ball system that delivers the previously thrown balls back to the bowlers. The real stage magic, however, comes in the details: The actors wind up and send their bowling balls down the “lane” only to have what one might assume is a perfectly-timed sound cue go off signifying the pins have been knocked down. The actors each react to the varying success of their character’s throw, dialogue ensues, and the ball seamlessly slides back on stage down the return ball chute, only for the action to repeat itself. It is such a smooth-running sequence that by mid-show the audience forgets to be impressed by how real it all feels; instead they are able to accept the on-stage bowling as part of the background of the story and shift their focus to the action of the characters—a feat which, if nothing else, is exactly what should happen in a play that’s “about” bowling while actually being about so much more.
While these impressive stage elements round out the world of this play perfectly, it's the talent of the actors whose characters inhabit it that change this production from a simple set of stage-tricks to a heartfelt and impactful story.
Carroll’s Ruth starts out reserved, nervous, and slightly judgmental, playing a perfect “straight woman” to Plum’s over-the-top and delightfully charismatic Maude. The two earn their fair share of laughs as they gripe about the realities of being “women of a certain age,” hilariously gossip about the questionable choices made by those in their community, and push each other’s buttons in a way that only best friends can. Even more impressively, Carroll and Plum’s performances continue to perfectly complement each other throughout the play, even as both of their characters develop and change, a testament to both these women’s talent and their clear understanding of these kinds of complex, layered relationships.
Arthur Gomez’s Ed—the owner of the bowling alley—provides some lighthearted moments early in the show, as well, when he catches the women on the premises. Though his character seems to become less prominent as the story unfolds and more significant character arcs come to light, Gomez does a great job of staying present and providing humorous and heartfelt reactions that filter through the heavier moments in the show.
Similarly, Ceit Zweil’s Charlene, Ruth’s daughter, adds another unexpected and fresh layer to the production when she makes her entrance about halfway through the piece. Zweil handles the twists and turns of her character—which range drastically from a funny, panicked lie, to the bitter reveal of a long-kept secret—with grace, managing to create a through-line for Charlene that keeps audiences invested.
The layers of Zweil’s character are also impressively explored when her character’s daughter, Teddy—played Greater Boston Stage Young Company member, Isabella Tedesco—enters the scene. Audiences are suddenly able to see the parallels between Charlene’s relationship with her daughter, and Ruth’s with Charlene, adding a new and interesting dynamic to the already powerful story. What’s more, Tedesco’s performance of a young teen provides an important contrast to the other generations of women represented on stage, and Tedesco holds her own in the crowd.
“Last Night at Bowl-Mor Lanes” is only the first in what is sure to be a fantastic season of theater at Greater Boston Stage Company. Keep an eye out for “Marie and Rosetta” (October 17th-November 10th), “Miracle on 34th Street” (November 29th-December 22nd), “The Moors” (March 12th-March 29th), Roald Dahl’s “Matilda” the musical (April 23rd-May 16th) and “Miss Holmes Returns” (June 4th-June 28th).