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Originally published April 29, 2013 at 12:15 PM | Page modified April 30, 2013 at 1:05 PM

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In ‘Assisted Living,’ the Golden Girls (and guys) meet Orwell

A review of Seattle playwright Katie Forgette’s “Assisted Living,” at ACT Theatre through May 12, 2013.

Seattle Times theater critic

THEATER REVIEW

‘Assisted Living’

By Katie Forgette. Through May 12, ACT Theatre, 700 Union St., Seattle (206-292-7676 or www.acttheatre.org).

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Be afraid, baby-boom generation. Be very, very afraid.

If you were not worried enough already about your autumnal years, Katie Forgette’s new play, “Assisted Living,” might raise the anxiety level. But with a laugh.

Set in a senior facility (housed in a former prison, and managed like one), this comedy, now at ACT Theatre, is part extended “Golden Girls” episode, part Orwellian freak-out.

Medicare has been replaced by curtailed government services for the elderly, outlined in — ouch — a decree called Senior Provisions Act (SPA).

Assisted-living facilities have become fascist human warehouses, with a few smiley-face touches and robot caregivers. Former smokers, junk-food junkies and non-exercisers are continually blamed and penalized for destroying the American economy, as well as their own health.

With the coming of Joe (played by ACT artistic head Kurt Beattie), a former stage actor and new arrival who refuses to toe the line, some of the miserable dwellers in SPA Facility No. 273 perk up. After all, there’s nothing like a little amateur dramatics to put some pep in your step.

Forgette’s cautionary tale and love letter to theater doesn’t quite follow through on its ominous opening gambit, in which a cheery young orderly (played by Tim Gouran) makes an unceremonious disposal down a mysterious chute.

“Assisted Living” does aim some sharp, smart darts at society’s treatment of the elderly, and evokes a creepy future world in which penitentiaries have been cleared for senior use by shipping offenders off to Pakistan.

But Forgette also wants you to get cozy with her good-hearted old-timer characters. And thanks in part to a close-knit cast of Seattle theater veterans directed by a longtime peer (and Forgette’s husband), R. Hamilton Wright, it’s hard to resist them.

Jeff Steitzer tackles with gusto the role of Wally, a curmudgeonly sort who may be a broken-down wreck but still pitches an acerbic put-down with the best. Marianne Owen is Judy, a former theater-arts teacher who brightens up when Joe proposes they defy the house rules and form a playreading series. (Is there any more direct route to this woman’s heart than quoting Shaw and Shakespeare?)

Adorably, there is also Laura Kenny’s Mitzi, a former nurse. She may be a little sketchy when it comes to brain matter, but she has boundless joie de vivre.

Beattie is disarming too, as a sweet, rational guy who is appalled by his new home, and quietly sets out to humanize the place.

But there has to be a villain here, and it is Claudia (Julie Briskman, soldiering through a thankless role), a killjoy administrator who embraces her inner Nurse Ratched — and, one supposes, speaks for resentful children of boomers footing the tax bill for their parents’ sins. (Forgette seems to both validate and repudiate their bitterness.)

For comedy’s sake, Claudia’s nastiness knows no bounds. And in a not entirely unexpected turn of events, her victims manage to give her some of her own medicine.

The future that “Assisted Living” imagines for ailing seniors is not entirely preposterous — except, maybe, for the part about Dick Cheney becoming president. (Then again ...)

Occasionally, however, the play slips into corniness (the holiday pageant) and randy-oldsters sitcom mode — with adult diaper jokes and such, and a tiresome scene of elder guys comparing notes on masturbation with Gouran’s vivaciously drawn orderly.

And the satirical edge and social critique is softened by a feel-good ending.

In the end, “Assisted Living” settles for being amusing, entertaining, life-affirming rather than alarmist and dystopian. It’s more of a spring tonic than a bitter pill, and what’s so bad about that?

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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