Most every playwright has a play like Larry Shue’s Grandma Duck Is Dead stashed away in a drawer somewhere. A play about a group of college buddies on the night before graduation is often part of a trio of drawer plays that also includes a play about the young playwright struggling to make it to the big time and a play about the young playwright who goes to his college reunion and realizes how time has tempered everyone’s ambitious goals and dreams.

As drawer plays go, this early work by the author of The Foreigner and The Nerd about college-buddy bonding is pretty good. The usual treacle about having to grow up and move on is nicely contrasted with some genuinely inventive plotting and some amusing situations. Though Grandma Duck Is Dead won’t blow anyone away with its originality, it’s compelling enough to entertain an audience for 90 minutes.

The play begins like a warped early Doonesbury cartoon. The year is 1968 and Woody (Paul Mullins), a college senior and amateur hypnotist, is laboring away at the standard moronic eight-to-ten pager about Dostoyevski’s debt to Dickens when his pal Badge (David David Katzman) distracts him from his work, inviting him to frolic about in a number of role-playing games. The two wrestle on the floor of Woody’s dorm room, do impressions, quote favorite works of literature, chuckle over in-jokes, and leap around imitating the world’s most brilliant panda and his stern taskmaster. The silliness wears a bit thin after a few minutes, as Woody and Badge resemble less the pair of brilliant comedians they fancy themselves and more a couple of spazzes from the science-fiction club.

Fortunately the play picks up with the introduction of two other characters–Ben Davidson (Jack Sanderson), a lummox whose only function on earth seems to be consuming Pepsi, and Esperanza (Michael Shepperd), a wild-eyed would-be rock star who begs Woody to hypnotize him so he can once again live out his fantasy of being Ringo Starr.

After Woody is goaded into hypnotizing Esperanza, the four men explore the depth of their friendship as they pretend to be John, Paul, George, and Ringo. But the game playing turns serious when Woody, as a sort of going-away present, puts Esperanza under a spell that allows him to imagine he can realize three wishes with the assistance of a magic Christmas tree. The hypnotic trance takes Esperanza on a trip to a different psychic plane, from which Woody seems unable to bring him back. As Woody, Ben, and Badge are scolded by Badge’s girlfriend Paula (Jill Kraft) for their immaturity, the young men realize they can no longer be children playing games and they have to start taking responsibility for their lives.

The Beatles and Christmas-tree fantasies work well as metaphors for the hallucinogenic drug experiences of the period, which at first seemed wonderful and then turned deadly. Esperanza’s journey in particular seems like a bad trip. And the metaphors allow Shue to address the dreams and fears of the 60s without using overdone joint-toking and acid-flashback sequences.

The play turns trite and preachy toward the end, with Paula’s finger-wagging admonishing of the boys and a couple of prolonged “So long, good buddy” scenes. But the images of young men playing silly games for the last time in their lives linger after the close of Shue’s darkly comic play.

The title refers to a time when Woody hypnotized Esperanza into thinking he was Donald Duck and Woody, Badge, and Ben were Huey, Dewey, and Louie. The game was funny enough until one of the three duck cousins quacked that Grandma Duck was dead. Esperanza was inconsolable, because he understood that the dream was over, that the games weren’t funny anymore. The specters of adulthood and Vietnam loom over the heads of the characters, poor little ducks who must find their way in the world alone.

Eric Wegener, in his Chicago directing debut, finds the balance between these comic and dramatic elements. The performances are believable, though Shepperd deserves special mention for his charismatic Esperanza. Christopher Corwin’s wonderfully detailed set–complete with dog-eared copies of Siddhartha and Cliff Notes and swiped road signs–captures the atmosphere of the college setting perfectly.

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