The world premiere of In Old Age, the fifth play in Mfoniso Udofia's nine-play cycle about a Nigerian-American family, played to an eager audience Wednesday night at The Magic Theatre.
Udofia has had a significant presence in the local theater in recent years, after graduating 10 years ago from ACT's MFA program. She has already had one play in San Francisco's current season, the recently closed Her Portmanteau at ACT's Strand Theater, which chronologically falls just before this one and features one of the same characters: matriarch Abasiama Ufot, here played by Nancy Moricette. The two productions also share the same director, Victor Malana Maog. And the Magic previously produced the first and third plays in Udofia's "Ufot Cycle," Sojourners and runboyrun.
With In Old Age, we have a two-person play that departs from the strict realism of the previous plays, in what is perhaps Udofia's attempt to understand dementia and the ghosts that follow a person through their latter days. Abasiama is confronted with a stranger, a handyman from the local church named Azell, whom Abasiama's children have hired to come make repairs in her crumbling home in Worcester, Massachusetts. After years of caring for and living with an all-but-estranged, mentally unstable husband named Disciple, who spent most of his time in the basement, Abasiama remains haunted by Disciple — primarily through persistent thuds from downstairs. (The sound design by Sara Huddleston is a particularly haunting highlight, drawing us in to Abasiama's relentlessly noisy mind.)
As Azell, Steven Anthony Jones is excellent and deeply empathetic. The role demands a lot, oscillating between frustration, kindness, rage, and despair as Azell deals with Abasiama's peculiarities, opens up to her slowly, and eventually confronts the biggest regrets in his own past.
As Abasiama, Moricette does great work inhabiting this incredibly exhausted older woman, however she feels a touch miscast and too young up against Jones — and the old-age makeup and wig felt like a distraction.
But when Udofia begins taking some magical realism liberties in the second half of In Old Age, the play loses some of the strength in its emotional thread. Rather than tracking the emotional arcs of Abasiama and Azell and puzzling through how their disparate paths intersect, the audience has to puzzle through what's real and imagined. And one final device in which the two characters seem to channel each other's thoughts strains credulity and raises questions more than it bolsters what would be an otherwise heartening story.
This magical interpretation of the connection between the two characters seems perhaps like an overreach after the more satisfying closure and denouement of the previous play, Her Portmanteau.
As a closing story for Abasiama — who has been central to the previous four plays and won't appear in another in this cycle — it also feels like a letdown. This once forthright, accomplished woman is reduced, as many are, by time and loss into a mostly silent shell, worn down after a particularly exhausting (and arguably overwrought) climax.
Taken as a whole, In Old Age feels like a play that is trying to be two things at once — a meditation on late-in-life connection and aging itself, as well as a specific story about two characters making peace with their pasts. And while that might have worked in a different execution, the tension between these two purposes tends to pull the play apart more than it pulls it together.
In Old Age plays through April 21. Sign up for RushTix and find tickets here.
Related: Playwright Mfoniso Udofia Explores A Unique Immigrant Family Saga In Her 9-Play 'Ufot Cycle'
Photo by Jennifer Reilly