at the Civic Theatre

Before I saw Grandma Moses–An American Primitive, I saw an article about it that included photos of Cloris Leachman getting made up for the second act–the one where she plays the artist celebrating her 100th birthday. The photos offered your basic isn’t-it-amazing transformation: Cloris before, Cloris after, and a picture of the real Anna Mary Robertson Moses, for comparison.

I thought, Uh oh.

I don’t like shows about makeup. I don’t like shows where we’re supposed to appreciate how much time a star spent applying putty to her nose, and how true-to-life it looks, and how valiant she is to undergo such rigors, and how undergoing them signifies a superior talent. I think shows like that are cheap. The whole idea in a show like that is to signal the rubes that they’re getting their money’s worth.

And here was Cloris Leachman performing in one. I already felt bad about Cloris Leachman. The last time I saw her onstage, she was wearing satin hot pants over flesh-colored tights, playing Hannah Mae Bindler in A Coupla White Chicks Sitting Around Talking. In my review I said it was a shame a good actress like her had to mess with such crap. The makeup photos told me Grandma Moses would very likely be more of the same–only without the hot pants.

Uh oh.

Which just proves how wrong you can be. Stephen Pouliot’s play about the farm wife who became an art-world celebrity at 80 isn’t anybody’s idea of a shattering theatrical experience. But it has dignity and humor, genuine sweetness and depth. It depicts the triumph of a modest nature modestly, without fireworks–or with only such fireworks as cohere around the spirit of Moses’s work. This isn’t “Grandma Rocky.” Even Leachman’s vaunted makeup job keeps its integrity in the end, depending less on latex and wigs than on Leachman’s own remarkable craft. Grandma Moses doesn’t fall all over you, any more than Moses herself would.

Not that it doesn’t try to win you over. Pouliot’s script is lousy with whimsy. With stories about hiding out in apple trees and sledding on shovels. With images of butter churns and Yankee pluck. With picturesque language and silly songs. With sentimental love scenes, rueful memories, and a whole subplot involving a cow and a train car. Starting out in 1905, with a middle-aged Mrs. Moses packing up for her move to farmland New York, and ending up in 1960, with an ancient Grandma Moses getting birthday wishes from President Kennedy, Pouliot does his best to beguile.

But his tone isn’t mawkish. It reflects what seems like an honest, if naive, yearning for the Golden Age represented in Moses’s paintings. It also recalls a sugarcoated-but-cunning rhetorical style that’s just plain old-fashioned American. Read Carl Sandburg if you don’t believe me.

Still, though he apparently tries now and then, Pouliot can’t muster much in the way of profundity. The depth in this show comes from John Boesche’s lyrical, quite literally luminescent projections based on Moses’s paintings. I’ve seen Boesche’s work before, but I’ve never seen him–or anyone–impart so much resonance and beauty to what’s basically just a bunch of slides. There’s a simultaneous clarity and mystery to Boesche’s work here that comes closer than any ten tributes to communicating the real reasons for loving Moses’s work.

Then, of course, Leachman’s there to give us reasons for loving Grandma herself. Neatly, professionally assisted by Peter Thoemke in various subsidiary roles, Leachman portrays a woman with plenty of child about her–but also plenty of hard sense. For all her evident delight in life and art, Leachman’s Moses never forgets the mercantile character of existence. She knows about business and she conducts it.

Leachman’s Moses is a creature of the world and of the body. Just watching the old lady walk, or hold a paintbrush wood-end down, is a revelation of the pleasures of musculature. The joy of being-as-doing. We should all live as long and as well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Brewster.