Everyone will love Nana in the end, maybe even Doris.
But that’s a tall order, considering Doris’ ingrained disdain for the elderly. It’s not unfounded — she has good reason for how she feels.
Doris was raised by an elderly aunt who mistreated her, so any preconceptions about her husband’s grandmother are understandable. Then again, not everyone is the same, and Nana definitely isn’t Doris’ aunt.
If only Doris would give her a chance.
“Doris already has a plan in place,” Ava Brewster-Turner says. “And the audience will see her do some mean things to Nana.”
Brewster-Turner is founder and artistic director of the company, which is in the midst of its Season of Fan Favorites. Audience members were polled last season about their favorite UpStage plays, and those getting the most votes were included in this season of reprisals.
“We first did ‘I Love You Nana’ in 2009,” Brewster-Turner says. “We decided to bring it back as our annual summer comedy.”
UpStage’s previous production marked the Louisiana premiere for Houston’s play. The playwright is probably best known as a writer for the mid-’80s television series “227.”
The story begins with Nana, who has taken a 36-hour bus ride from her home in the rural South to visit her grandson, Melvin, who now lives with his wife, Doris, in a northern city. Nana raised Melvin, and there’s nothing but affection between her and her grandson.
Now, the catch comes in Doris’ feelings. Her perceptions of the elderly do not surface until Nana arrives, and the conflict begins.
“But there are other troubles, too,” Brewster-Turner says. “Melvin doesn’t want his wife to have to work, so he works two jobs and is putting the money away so he and Doris can buy a home. He wants Doris to be able to stay home and pursue her dreams. She’s a good dancer, so he wants her to dance.”
But dancing suddenly has become more important than ever to Doris. She’s been taking money out of one of the accounts, and she believes that if she can win a local dance contest, the cash prize will be enough to replace the money without Melvin finding out.
“So, there is a lot going on, and it’s filled with 1970s lingo,” Brewster-Turner says. “The cast also wears 1970s fashion.”
This is fun for Will Merrill, who plays Melvin.
“I looked at the clothes and styles to get ready for this role, and I watched a lot of ‘Soul Train,’” Merrill says. “‘Soul Train’ had the latest music and styles of the day. I’m really having fun with it.”
Merrill also prepared for the role by examining his relationship with his late grandmother, Shirley Merrill. She was Nana to Merrill.
“I called her that,” he says. “We were close, and I can relate to Melvin’s love for his grandmother. She would have loved seeing this play. And I’m dedicating my performance to her.”
Stepping into the role of Merrill’s stage Nana is Ashley Downing, who is returning to the stage for the first time since graduating from Baton Rouge Magnet High School.
“I was very active in the theater department there, and I was in several productions,” Downing says. “I teach art now at the Greenville Superintendent’s Academy, but I missed the stage.”
She returns as a young actress playing a woman in her 70s, which gives Downing the rare opportunity to see life through the eyes of a different generation.
And like Merrill, she prepared for the role by considering her relationship with her real-life grandmother.
“I thought a lot about her — her mannerisms and perspective,” Downing says. “My grandmother is 72, which is about the same age as Nana in the play. I look at how she reacts to the world and how she reacts to the family, and I asked myself, ‘What if I had been raised by her? What would that look like?’ I see Nana as spry and very loving and caring, but she’s stern when she needs to be. She’s also active and able to do things for herself.”
Downing’s grandmother definitely will be in the audience on opening night.
“But I didn’t tell her that I modeled Nana on her,” Downing says, laughing.
Meanwhile, Nana has never met Doris and is excited to meet her grandson’s wife. But conflict rises quickly.
Does anger get the best of Nana? Does Doris succumb to resentment?
“Let’s just say that everyone will see why everyone loves Nana in the end,” Brewster-Turner says.