Striking In :: Weylin Symes, Nancy Carroll, and Paula Plum Chat about 'Last Night at Bowl-Mor Lanes'

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Aug 9, 2019
Greater Boston Stage Company Producing Artistic Director Weylin Symes
Greater Boston Stage Company Producing Artistic Director Weylin Symes  (Source:Provided)

Greater Boston Stage Company kicks off its 20th Season with a strike... not a strike-out, mind you, but rather a new comedy that takes place in a bowling alley and, aptly enough, sets up numerous dramatic and comedic pins, only to send them flying.

"Last Night at Bowl-Mor Lanes" is a world premiere, written by Greater Boston Stage Company Producing Artistic Director Weylin Symes. In his new work, Symes introduces us to a pair of septuagenarians, Maude and Ruth, who have been competing at the local bowling alley for almost 50 years. But time has moved on, and the bowling alley has passed to a younger owner, Ed, son of the now-deceased original proprietor. Ed's life is in need of a shaking up; he's trapped in an unhappy marriage, and he's been offered some serious money to sell the bowling alley to a developer.

The play is set on the night before the beloved Bowl-Mor Lanes is to be torn down to make way for a big box store. Maude and Ruth, whose bowling stats are tied after all these years, won't let go until they have one last — and definitive — showdown. Naturally, for this to happen, they break into the Bowl-Mor Lanes. As they send balls rolling down the alleys and engage in banter and wordplay, the two old friends also reminisce about bygone times and examine their lives. Maude's son is estranged; Ruth's daughter relies on her for babysitting in the aftermath of a family loss. Friends and family are the cruces of their lives, and Bowl-More Lanes has long been an anchor for those things.

But the old friends are not alone, as it turns out, and Bowl-Mor Lanes becomes a place for long-suppressed truths to finally be spoken.

EDGE caught up with Symes to ask about the play, but also had the chance to chat with its two leads, Nancy Carroll and Paula Plum, and hear their take on the script and their characters.


EDGE: One of the first things I thought about when reading the script for your new play was Robert D. Putnam's book "Bowling Alone," from 2001, which talks about how social ties in America have been breaking down. Was this a factor in your choice to see the play at a bowling alley?

Weylin Symes: I am aware of "Bowling Alone," but haven't read it. The main impetus for the bowling alley location was three-fold:

1. I thought it would make a unique theatrical setting and a wonderful audience experience;

2. The Stoneham Theatre building used to have a bowling alley in the basement in the 1950s and I wrote the play partly as an homage to our building and suburban setting;

3. Connected to that, bowling alleys are such a quintessential 20th-century social gathering place.

The type of gathering place that increasingly feels left behind in our social media/streaming video age. Ruth and Maude are definitely 20th-century women, so this setting seemed ideal for them as they face a changing world.

EDGE: It's also significant that the bowling alley in your play is a place that's closed down, been sold off, and is about to be torn down to make way for new development. I feel like you're exploring a nostalgia, a pang of anguish for an America, or a way of life, that no longer exists... am I on the right track?

Weylin Symes: The fact that the bowling alley is being torn down is definitely, for me, a sign of the passing of an age. Ruth and Maude are vibrant, smart women, but they also represent a generation that is being lost. And while there is definitely a pang for what is being lost, I also wanted to make sure that Maude and Ruth are very much living in the present as well and weren't simply pining for a sepia-toned fictionalized version of the past.

EDGE: That sense of things slipping away is literally embodied in Ruth and Maude; they are in their 70s, are both widowed, and for them, the end of the bowling alley represents the last vestiges of happier days that are now gone.

Weylin Symes: It was very important to me to reflect in the play that nostalgia for a by-gone, simpler age is just that, nostalgia. I hope this play shows that life, friendships and family are, have been and will always be, messy and difficult. I bridle at this notion that the past was better ("make America great again") and we'd be better off if we could only return to those old ways. For example, certain revelations about Ruth force us, the audience, and Ruth herself to see that life may be messier than her morality and her nostalgia acknowledges.

EDGE: Thematically, this is heavy stuff! Is that why you chose to write this as a comedy — to leaven the themes of loss?

Weylin Symes: Why is it a comedy? Not sure. But some of it is definitely because the women I knew growing up used humor to deal with the adversity of life. Sarcasm, irony and dark humor were staples of their conversation and it seems like the right tone to tell this story. And two older women breaking into a bowling alley seems inherently kind of funny to me.

EDGE: Did you have Nancy Carroll and Paula Plum in mind while writing the characters of Ruth and Maude? — by which I mean, were you writing their dialogue with Paula and Nancy's voices ringing in your imagination?

Weylin Symes: I didn't actually write the pay with anyone in mind, but I asked Paula to do a reading last year and immediately knew I wanted her for Maude. If I wrote the play with anyone in mind, it was a group of friends my parents had when I was growing up. They drank too much, smoked too much, sang loud songs out of key and were generally inappropriate in all kinds of ways. And I loved them and think of them to this day. This play is a tribute to them.

EDGE: I was surprised at how the casting was done — I would have pegged Nancy for the one to play Maude, the troublemaker. Was there any thought along the way of switching the roles?

Nancy Carroll: It was never mentioned, and after reading the script I felt I understood both of them and went in hoping Paula and I might get another chance to work together because it's been a while! And I'm so glad it worked out!

Paula Plum: Nancy Carroll is a troublemaker— we don't want to encourage her.

Weylin Symes: I think Paula and Nancy are a bit cross-cast intentionally because (and I don't want to speak for the director) I love that Paula brings warmth to a role that could be too acidic otherwise and Nancy brings an edge to a character that could seem too silly otherwise.

EDGE: Weylin, another commonality between Maude and Ruth is that they are both widows, which underscores the play's poignant themes... but what's also interesting is that Ruth's daughter, Charlene, is also a widow.

Weylin Symes: Charl also being a widow seemed like a way for me say that everyone suffers and has pain in life — not just those who have been around forever. Life is hard for us all. No one has a special claim to hardship. There was also something about this shared experience between the 3 women that I liked.


Pauls Plum stars in 'Last Night at Bowl-Mor Lanes'  (Source:Provided)

EDGE: I came away from the play feeling like you'd said something significant about how it's necessary to face our fears. Was that part of this play's DNA from the start, or did you find your way there in the process of writing?

Weylin Symes: For me the meat of the piece is two-fold. The first is Ruth being forced to examine the certainty of her moral convictions... I'm fascinated by moments where abstract ideals meet the reality of messy, daily life. Those moments make for wonderful drama.

And the second is Maude finally letting go of [a tragedy from her past]. This feels like a deeply meaningful release of a certain way of defining herself.

And you are correct that both of these moments are about facing fears. For Ruth, the fear that her daughter may not always be there for her. And for Maude, the fear of who she is without a husband (even though he's been dead for years).

Nancy Carroll: How each person deals with loss and life's challenges is so much of what the arts addresses - who can pick themselves up and those who simply cannot - and probably most of us are just constantly working at trying to adjust/rise above adversity and keep going.

Paula Plum: Maude says many times in the play, "Come on, it's your last chance," vis-a-vis breaking and entering, the last chance to bowl at Bowl-Mor, stealing from the concession stand, using the men's room, etc.— I don't know if the theme is facing fears as much as embracing the opportunities that arise in the moment. If you don't go for it, you'll never know, and you won't have truly lived.

EDGE: Paula, Nancy, from your actorly perspective, what's the story with Ruth and Maude? What have you come to know as you work with these characters?

Paula Plum: As I memorize this script, it strikes me that there are only references to a past that reaches back 45 years — and these women are in their 70s— so the relationship started in the 1970s — when the women were in their mid-twenties, early thirties.

The timeline for these autobiographies would be [that they are] early boomers, born sometime between 1946 and 1949. Maude and Ruth refer to the first time they met, waiting for Ruth to "get her brake pads replaced" — both have a child—and the questions that arise are: Did they first meet themselves as children, or in school, or when their kids were in school? It is left intentionally ambiguous (I think that's Weylin's intention) in the play, so we don't really know the very beginning — only that they started bowling together twice a week 45 years ago, and between them, they know everyone in town.

EDGE They have something of a rough-edged, and yet quite affectionate, relationship. Are they "frenemies?"

Nancy Carroll: I love the term "frenemies" - I think that since they've known each other so long/been witness to each other's joys and troubles, that there is just license in their longevity to call each other out - and even though an outsider might see it differently, I think there is real comfort in having your best friend tell it like it is - and they constantly do this throughout the play - and I like how sometimes the truth is hurtful and other times it's hysterical!

Paula Plum: I think they play for the excitement of the competition, not for dominance. There is a sense —since they are breaking and entering together to do more than bowl (spoiler alert) — that the friendship is deep, and not based merely on a bowling rivalry.

EDGE: How'd you each end up getting cast for this?

Paula Plum: Weylin offered me the role early this year, after a reading of the play.

Nancy Carroll: Weylin asked me to come in and audition - he mentioned that Paula was already cast, so I imagine they had already settled on her character (that is a guess on my part).

EDGE: I have to say I really like the way Maude and Ruth are free of some sort of magical "elder wisdom" — they seem just as uncertain and clueless as anyone else. Is that something you've enjoyed playing?

Paula Plum: Oh, it's so much more active and interesting to play a character who doesn't have all the answers. Nobody really does, anyway.

EDGE: Paula, your character, Maude, is a bit of an anarchist, or maybe just has too much zeal to be constrained by rules. Do you imagine that she was a wild child back in the day?

Paula Plum: When I went to St. Mary's High in Lynn, back in the '70s, I was a real goody-two-shoes. I didn't drink in the woods, smoke, roll my uniform waistband into a mini-skirt, or get into trouble of any kind. Maude is my antithesis; I'm sure she did all this and more. She's a ringleader who wants to try everything, a real daredevil! She is so alive!


Nancy Carroll stars in 'Last Night at Bowl-Mor Lanes'  (Source:Provided)

EDGE: Ruth is an interesting concoction of different traits; she's a little scatterbrained, and she's also very... is self-righteous the word? And yet, here she is, breaking and entering, all because Maude has talked her into it. Do you have a sense that Ruth is blind to her own faults? Or is it more that she has a quirky sense of right and wrong?

Nancy Carroll: I think she thought at one time how life should be lived and tried to adhere to that but life/loss/living shifts things - you're clueless at first, then think you have answers only to find you don't - she's there with Maude for a very special reason (I don't want to give that plotline away), and Maude has an additional reason - a funnier reason: Settling who has won the most strings. A note on that, I am a terrible bowler! The queen of gutter balls. So that should be interesting as we stage this.

EDGE: Ruth's got lots of great one-liners, and she has a terrific speech late in the play, but what struck me most in her dialogue was when she confided that the bowling alley was her solace when her husband was dying — she says, "I needed somewhere to go that wasn't the house or the hospital - even when he was doing okay at first - someplace where I wasn't the woman with a sick husband." There's so much that's hinted at in that line — about how women of her generation might have been expected to live in their husbands' shadows or be defined by the men they married, rather than being seen and appreciated for themselves.

Nancy Carroll: I think there was a time when women were expected to live in their husbands shadow - we've all seen it - but for both Maude and Ruth, they had to live differently once their husbands were gone/find their own purpose/make new rules or perhaps, decide to break them and take new liberties!

EDGE: Maude also has many terrific lines, but my favorite is this: "Confusion is an old lady superpower. Young people have sex. We have confusion." Paula, how much fun are you having with this? And — when the time arrives — do you expect to use that superpower for your own purposes?

Paula Plum: We haven't started rehearsals yet, so the delight in the playing will reveal itself. I do love how wily Maude is in this particular speech— she is utterly aware of her powers to "play-act" and manipulate. And so am I.

EDGE: Paula, you have so much going on every season with acting and directing, I have to ask what else you have coming up?

Paula Plum: I will be appearing in "The Children" at SpeakEasy in March, also directed by the inimitable Bryn Boice.

EDGE: Nancy, how about you? What other projects do you have coming up?

Nancy Carroll: I'm filming an episode for "Castle Rock" soon.

EDGE: You'll also be back next March with Greater Boston Stage Company for "The Moors," which Weylin will direct. Do you want to say a little about that play?

Nancy Carroll: I am coming back for "The Moors" - that's a whacky play that will take a bit of time to figure out, but I love my role and it will be a very fun challenge. In the spring, I'll be doing a revival of "TRAD" with Tir Na Theatre, and I can't wait to revisit that play - it is one of my favorites!


"Last Night at Bowl-Mor Lanes" runs Sept. 5 — 29 at Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham. For tickets and more information please go to https://www.greaterbostonstage.org/bowl_mor.html


Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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