Carson Merry Baillie on stage in “The Waverly Gallery”

Carson Merry Baillie isn’t taking retirement sitting down. The 89-year-old founder of the Atlantic Beach Experimental Theatre is returning to the theatre she created with tonight’s opening of The Waverly Gallery. Directed by Jack Barnard, the reading will be staged Aug 12-14.

 “Celia wanted to do something to celebrate our 25th anniversary and she thought it woud be fun to drag me out of retirement,” says Merry Baillie. “I was ready to go, honey. I miss it like crazy. You can never to be sure somebody my age can still do it so we had to make sure I was still able to do it. The mind is still there. It’s the body that’s getting in the way.”

 For an accomplished actor and director, the stage will always be home to Merry Baillie. Sure, she’s had to make some monir concessions, like finding a role that would allow her to remain seated on stage. “I’m 89. You’ve got to be cognicant of the fact that the body is going to slow down a little bit,” she says. “But it’s a lovely play. I’m having such fun.”

 The Waverly Gallery is a “memory play” by Kenneth Lonergan. First produced Off-Broadway in 2000, the production follows a grandson watching his grandmother slowly die from Alzheimer’s disease. Gladys, the elderly matriarch of the Green family, has run an art gallery in a small Greenwich Village hotel for many years. The management wants to replace her less than thriving gallery with a coffee shop. Always irascible but now increasingly erratic, Gladys is a cause of concern to her daughter, her son-in-law and her grandson, from whose point of view this poignant memory play is told.

 Like her character Gladys, Merry Baillie is also hard of hearing. She finally shelled out a small fortune to get fitted for hearing aids and “like old Gladys, half the time I feel like they’re not working. It’s really tough to be hard of hearing and it’s annoying to other people. In the play, she’s a big pain to everybody so I kind of feel for her,” she says. “I just love the part. It’s funy but it’s sad at the same time. You get some laughs but it’s also very sad. It’s a lovely play.”

 When Baillie turned the reigns over to current managing artistic director Celia Frank, she knew her dream was in capable hands. She has enjoyed watching the charming little not for profit theatre forge onward and continue expanding its roster which has staged an impressive 135 productions. “It’s wonderful. It absolutely warms my heart,” she says. “It couldn’t have been anyone but Celia. It takes the righ personality and the intelligence to do it and she’s just doing a great job.”

 Merry Baillie is delighted to share the stage with many members of the early ABET casts. Karen Garrett, Leonard Alterman and Barnard all performed in Merry Baillie’s beloved “Russians” by playwright Anton Chekhov. Also returning is Brandon Frank, who portrayed Merry Baillie’s great nephew in “Approaching Zanzibar” at 12. Frank is a now a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology at Fordham University in New York who urged his mother to return to theatre and help him fulfill his dream “to be in a play.”

 “They are all people that I directed years ago. Karen playing my daughter and Leonard as my son-in-law. And of course, having Brandon back is just terrific. Here he is playing my grandson. He came all the way from Boston to do this show.”

 As the calendar flips ahead into the 25th year, Merry Baillie acknowledges that “The Waverly Gallery” could be her “swan song.” But as the little theatre that could celebrates a quarter century of community theatre, it shows that the heart of ABET is still beating as strong as ever. “If Celia can find another play for me to do sitting down,” she says. “I’ll act until I’m 100.”

About Liza Mitchell