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Margaret (Presila Quinby) and Patty (Elizabeth Suzanne) in "Walter Cronkite Is Dead." (Courtesy photo)

News is not ‘the way it is’ anymore, play says

Two women, strangers to each other, are caught in an airport time warp, waiting for their flights to board. The setup sounds like it could be a nightmare and, at first, it is. “Walter Cronkite is Dead,” directed by Jeannine Grizzard, opened Sunday at the Ashland Contemporary Theatre.

Margaret Byers is soft spoken, self-contained and sophisticated. Her tailored gray jacket and silk scarf finish off a stylish look of wealth and privilege. As the show opens, Margaret, played by Presila Quinby, is seated in an airport bar with a glass of wine. She’s reading and re-reading what might be a letter, mouthing the words in concentration, following the words with her finger.

And then that quiet moment is interrupted by the arrival of Patty Jenkins — frowsy, plumpish and loud, taking up more than her share of space and air with her physical and vocal volume. Patty, played by Elizabeth Suzanne, is Appalachian exaggerated and won’t — can’t — stop talking.

There’s an implicit covenant of privacy in small and public spaces and Patty has violated every tenant of that agreement. For most travelers, this intrusion is unbearable and, as one would expect, Margaret is horrified. The two women, as different as they seem at first, are far more similar that they know. These are the congruencies and diversities Grizzard explores.

Walter Cronkite, CBS news anchorman, was known as the most trusted name in journalism, whose nightly signoff was “And that’s the way it is.” His reassuring middle-American voice established a common viewpoint, a perspective on American society and culture that was accepted and reliable. Playwright Joe Calarco’s allusion to Walter Cronkite as dead suggests that truth as we once might have known it is also dead, that “that” is no longer the way it is.

Instead, Quinby and Suzanne as Margaret and Patty show to the world a reflection, a façade, only the outer layer of life and behavior. Their public differences in politics and religion are largely defined by external authorities — dreams, religious doctrine, their offspring and husbands. Margaret is place bound and fearful, yet her mind roams freely. Patty is buoyant and confident, traveled and experienced, but narrow in personal perspective.

Over the narrative of the play, Margaret and Patty’s values collide and explode, then reconcile as their most authentic selves are revealed. Both are women who have lived and loved, women who regret and grieve, who — if they want to — can learn to live independent adult lives.

“Walter Cronkite is Dead” is Presila Quinby’s parting gift to the Rogue Valley. Her work here has spanned more than 30 years off and on, at Oregon Stage Works, Oregon Cabaret, Ashland Contemporary Theatre, Next Stage Rep and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. She performed on the Camelot stage and frequently directed the theater’s spotlight musicals. Next year, Quinby and her husband, musician Bil Leonhart, plan to move to France.

In the Ashland Contemporary Theatre’s 28th season, artistic director Jeannine Grizzard searched long and hard for the proper vehicle to showcase Quinby’s talents. Grizzard said in the “Walter Cronkite is Dead” playbill that she read through 700 play descriptions to find just 30 scripts that presented mature women in roles that weren’t typecast and stereotypical.

“It seems that nearly the only subject matter for women ‘of a certain age’ to discuss onstage is their private lives,” Grizzard wrote. “What they don’t seem to do much of in modern plays is wrestle with the problems of the world.”

In “Walter Cronkite is Dead,” Quinby and Suzanne as Margaret and Patty, do wrestle with the problems of their worlds, and these are the vehicles that expose their private lives on stage. It’s an inexplicable disclosure of their innermost, most hidden selves to a virtual stranger and a seeming catharsis for both women. And that’s what Grizzard has done with “Walter Cronkite is Dead” — help to expand our minds, broaden our frame of reference and appreciate another’s point of view, even when it’s not our own.

“Walter Cronkite is Dead” starts at 8 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays at the Community Center, 59 Winburn Way, through Nov. 18, plus a matinee at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 10.

An afternoon performance is also scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday, Nov. 16, at Grizzly Peak Winery, 1600 East Nevada St. in Ashland.

Tickets ($18) are available at the door, online at AshlandContemporaryTheatre.org and at Paddington Station in Ashland and Grocery Outlet in Medford. For more information, call 541-646-2971.

Reach Ashland freelance writer Maureen Flanagan Battistella at mbattistellaor@gmail.com.

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