“Sunset Park” looks at aspects of aging

Jack Coggins standing and holding binoculars and Michael Bias sitting on a Bech in the background
Jack Coggins (L) and Michael Bias (R). Photo by John Posada 2023
Valerie Stack Dodge, Jack Coggins, Sue-Ellen Mandell, Becca McLarty, Michael Bias, Gary Glor on the poster image
Front row, Valerie Stack Dodge, Jack Coggins, Sue-Ellen Mandell; back row, Becca McLarty, Michael Bias, Gary Glor. Photo by John Posada 2023

The Theater Project in Maplewood kicks off its summer season with Joseph Vitale’s Sunset Park, an episodic look at a small cross-section of humanity as they face the unexpected challenges of growing old. It is a small play of quiet, surprising grace, and one that will make you smile.

The action takes place in a city park from the first day of spring to a November day a week before Thanksgiving. While the six actors take on multiple roles, the story lines in which they appear are not connected in any way to each other.

We start out by observing a couple waiting for the first sunrise of spring.  She (Sue-Ellen Mandell) remembers how this was a ritual during the early years of their marriage; he (Jack Coggins) is cold and uncomfortable, wanting nothing more than to go home.

The next episode introduces us to two dog-walking friends. Middle-aged Terri (Becca McLarty) is in an unhappy marriage with a philandering husband; the older Frank (Gary Glor) is taking care of his wife, battling cancer; they offer each other understanding and support. We then meet three long-standing senior friends — sharp-tongued Lydia (Valerie Stack Dodge), subservient Mary (Mandell), and conspiracy theorist Wendell (Michael Bias) — who meet to sneak smokes in the evening. An aging father (Bias) seeks to reconnect with his son (Coggins) over their once-shared love for baseball. The couple from the start of the play return to see the last sunset before the park closes for the season.

Vitale’s play does not have the usual through-line of a play. Instead, it tackles its subject by viewing it from different angles. The elderly couple that bookends the play gives insight on building familiar behaviors over a lifetime to maintain their love. The dog-walkers, in three separate scenes, maneuver the treacherous misunderstandings of friendship, love, and remorse.

One of the three smoking buddies is facing a medical test with dread; another has bittersweet memories stirred by a recently found gift from their spouse. The son, concerned by his father’s failing memory, wants him to move into an assisted-living community; the father wants to remain among the familiar surroundings of his home.

The six actors, directed by Artistic Director Mark Spina, completely inhabit their characters. Their concentration is focused to the exclusion of everything else — either other actors making entrances or exits, or the unexpected real-life boom of exploding fireworks from the nearby town park during the last vignette (not, I would hope, an every-performance occurrence).

For a gentle, well-acted show about moving into the unexplored and unexpected world of old age, Sunset Park fills the bill. I suggest making the trip to Maplewood to see this show before its all-too-brief run ends.

Sunset Park is presented by The Theater Project in the Black Box Studio Space at the Burgdorff Center for the Performing Arts in Maplewood through July 16, 2023.  For more information or to purchase tickets, visit thetheaterproject.org.