Encore Michigan

Meadow Brook’s Harry Townsend explores elderly decline with heart

Review April 12, 2023 David Kiley

ROCHESTER, HILLS, MI–One of the most dominant and common storylines with American families today is how adult children cope with aging parents facing health issues—parents who are declining and resistant to facing end-of-life phased-living options that will care for the elderly as they descend into a loss of independent living.

Though the chasm between elderly parents and adult children has been probed in theatrical pieces and books before—On Golden Pond and I Never Sang for my Father, to name two—the latest piece making the rounds is Harry Townsend’s Last Stand,” now playing at The Meadow Brook through April 16.

Harry Townsend (Mark Rademacher) is an 84-year old Vermonter living on a lake (On Golden Pond was in Maine on a Lake), alone after his wife died five years earlier. His daughter, not seen in the play, has gone from weekly visits to daily, while her twin brother, Alan (Craig Bentley) lives in California. Alan, though, has come for a visit to give his sister a break, and to see for himself what state his father is in.

The two men, separated in age by about 40 years, try to bond in the way that men will do–over healthy pours of Glenlivet Single Malt and raking over memories. The scene is familiar, with an adult child pushing for a new, less worrisome living situation (Harry falls a lot), while Harry, a charming ladies man with plenty of gravitas when he was working as a radio host, is clinging to his independence at the lake house like a cat with his nails dug into a tree.

Playwright George Eastman apparently turned a magazine article he wrote into this play, which ran Off Broadway in 2019. And he gets the dialogue very right between two men separated by four decades. What Eastman misses a bit, however, is the sense of bigger potential story conflict between the two.

All the banter is believable, and for many of us it is all too familiar, right down to the dead accurate description of a phased living facility that ranges from independent living to assisted living and hospice. Eastman has written Harry deftly as a man caught between two worlds—of being independent and prideful and slipping into vulnerability and infirmity. His soul is young and his heart remains full of memories of happy times with a woman he loved so completely, often awkwardly retelling stories of sexual escapades with her to his son.

Ably directed by Travis W. Walter, the set for the lake house, designed by Brian Kessler, is superb. Once again, The Meadow Brook consistently has the best executed sets in the state. The wood beams suspended from the

What we are kind of missing here, though, is a real conflict worth writing about between father and son. The conflict is really between Harry’s mind and body, and his heart and body. He wants to give the housing development council, which he helped found, the business for not seeing to the community’s common interests well enough. But he is actually shut out of a closed council meeting—seen as just some old guy. He wants to go for his ambles through the woods around the lake, but he gets winded, he falls and sometimes falls asleep easily when he stops to rest (by the way a plot lift from On Golden Pond).

“I know what a clumsy old bird I’ve become,” he tells Alan, who is pre-occupied with his father’s falls. It is a heartening realization. But it also heads off  real conflict and the need to resolve it. The “conflict” is all a bit too polite, frankly.

Harry Townsend’s Last Stand ends on a very hopeful note, but without ever really entering a crisis, or the visit generating big laughs from two characters facing painful reality. The highs aren’t very high, and the lows aren’t very low. Taken as a whole, it is a rather too-cheerful treatment of a conflict that grips so many families and can impact them for years.

Harry Townsend’s and Alan’s story are authentic and the dialogue surprisingly good. A rework to add some higher peaks and lower valleys would make it a stronger piece. Details for tickets and showtimes can be found here.