What if Romeo and Juliet were seniors?

SocialTwist Tell-a-Friend
Michael Toscano

Claire Schoonover and Elliott Bales discuss their lead roles in Romeo and Juliet: Love Knows No Age, which relocates Shakespeare’s classic to a contemporary American retirement community with the titular characters in their 70s. The play will be performed at Randolph Road Theater from July 16 to Aug. 9.
Photo by Michael Toscano

“First of all, they look at you like you’ve lost your mind. And then, when you explain the concept, every single person I’ve talked to says, ‘That is such a fantastic idea. I can’t wait to see it.’”

That’s local actor Elliott Bales, discussing his role as Romeo in Unexpected Stage Company’s production of Romeo and Juliet: Love Knows No Age, onstage July 16 to Aug. 9 at Randolph Road Theatre in Silver Spring.

Bales is no kid actor. He’s a seasoned veteran, a thespian with credits in theater, film and television. He’s got a few gray hairs. So what’s he doing playing a 14-year-old lovesick teenager in medieval Italy? He’s not. He’s playing a 70-something, lovesick guy in 2015 America.

The concept is simple, and yet both radical and common-sense. What if those storied star-crossed lovers, Juliet and Romeo, are not teens of olden times but modern seniors living in a retirement facility? Rather than the lovers’ parents opposing the relationship, it is their adult children.

For director Christopher Goodrich, the idea to explore the inner life and sensuality of older people materialized while visiting his 97-year-old grandmother at an assisted living community in the area.

“Going into that place is terrifying,” he said. “Our society has a tendency to infantilize these people, and to not take them seriously. In the lobby, there’s no life. It seems as if they’re waiting to die. But what I see when she gets into her room is life, is vibrancy, is wit.”

Way beyond bingo

And there’s something else going on. A New York Times article called “Sex and the Single Senior” (http://bit.ly/sexandsinglesenior) cites a surprising finding: There is a rising rate of sexually transmitted diseases in retirement communities, assisted living facilities and nursing homes.

Clearly, there is a lot more activity than bingo these days, as seniors live longer and with better health. As Goodrich put it: “Everyone is having sex with each other.”

Goodrich has set the story in the lobby of a senior facility. The change in age means dialogue has to be revised. Juliet’s nurse can’t mention weaning her; she’s now a caregiver for the elderly, as is Romeo’s pal Mercutio. The actor playing Lady Capulet is pregnant, so that adds another dimension to the family dynamics at play.

I visited an early rehearsal, only the second time they worked their way through the play as an ensemble. Goodrich, a wiry presence with intense blue eyes, sits cross-legged on a table pushed up against a wall, speaking softly to his actors. They are in a large conference room, a borrowed space in a Rockville office building.

They are feeling their way through the dialogue, finding spots where changes need to be made. Finding new layers of meaning when the words are spoken out loud for the first time. And they’re improvising; a rolling office chair becomes a walker for an aged character, for example.

This is clearly an experiment. “It’s a complete risk,” Goodrich admitted. “We have no idea if it will work. We’re just going for it. It looks like it’s working. We’re coming up with ideas and issues that happen with the life experiences of characters now over 70.”

Reversing roles

Yes, it does appear to be working. For one thing, it becomes a very modern story, as Romeo and Juliet’s children are now parents to their own children and simultaneously parents to their parents — a very contemporary squeeze.

Capulet now wants to marry his aged mom off “properly,” so he’s not burdened financially (since he has his own growing family to support). That refreshes the entire concept.

And then there is the chemistry, the theatrical magic that cannot be faked, between leading man Bales and leading lady Claire Schoonover. They’ve just met, and yet they banter and occasionally finish each other’s sentences like old friends.

Schoonover, born in England, has spent much of her life living in Germany. She’s married to an American and has three strapping sons.

Now residing in the D.C. area with her family, she (like Bales) is two decades younger than her character. But she is able to bring her own life experiences to the role the way a teenager might not be able to finesse, especially in understanding the tense relationship between Juliet and her son.

“There is something to be mined in understanding his frustration at having to look after me,” she said thoughtfully, falling into stream-of-consciousness introspection. “Say, if my husband were to pass away, and my three sons were left to care for me.  Exploring that, something I may be facing in the future, and wondering, having no girls and, typically, thinking a daughter might take after me more. That’s something to think about and understand.”

The duo has had to formulate their own “back-stories” for Romeo and Juliet, filling in the decades before we meet them.

“You have to decide about your spouse, whether you’re divorced or a widow, what kind of relationship you had, and how that informs your attitude toward love, especially a new love,” Schoonover explained. “And, are you a sexual person?”

Ah, yes, that last part again. There is a lot of serious stuff to be said about how we treat older people and their place in our society. But I know what Beacon readers really want to know, so I ask.

Goodrich responds by saying there is no flinching:  These are lovers, sensually sentient people. And that’s something we rarely see in film, TV or stage depictions of older people.

The director considers this, saying “Love is something that keeps you alive, keeps you moving forward. For these two, now, needing to find that thing that keeps you getting up in the morning, that thing being intense, urgent love.”

So, how hot do they expect it to get? Claire jumps right in: “Oh, steamy!” she calls out before dissolving in laughter. “Get ready, you’re going to have your socks blown right off.”

Elliott chimes in, trying to act professional, declaiming, “Shakespeare put language there that is sexually suggestive, and when you see Romeo now as a person who’s been down the road before…” and then trailing off as if he cannot help himself, then trying, and failing, to recover his gravitas.

“Look, there will not be two bath tubs here,” he finally states firmly, referring to the ubiquitous advertising for a chemical aide to male performance. That prompts another outburst of laughter from the two of them, as Claire rolls her eyes and gazes innocently upward.

This kind of chemistry is so much better than that other kind.

Inexpensive preview tickets

Romeo and Juliet: Love Knows No Age is onstage July 16 to Aug. 9 at Randolph Road Theatre, 4010 Randolph Rd. in Silver Spring, Md.

Show times: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Ticket prices are $18, except for the Saturday 7:30 p.m. shows, which are priced at $25. Tickets for seniors are discounted $2 each.

There is a pay-what-you-can preview on Thursday, July 16 at 7:30 p.m. (Reserve your ticket in advance, then pay what you wish at the door.) The preview performances on Friday, July 17 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, July 18 at 2 p.m. are priced at $10. Student, senior, military, group and subscriber prices are available.

Purchase tickets online at http://loveknowsnoage.brownpapertickets.com or by telephone at 1-800-838-3006. For information and tickets, visit www.unexpectedstage.org or call (301) 337-8290.

The Randolph Road Theatre is wheelchair accessible and has free parking.