Married without children

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday May 18, 2016
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Pamela Gaye Walker and JW Walker play a married couple<br>who are adrift after their youngest child heads off to college in Garret Jon<br>Groenveld's new play <i>The Empty Nesters </i>at Z Space. Photo: David Allen
Pamela Gaye Walker and JW Walker play a married couple
who are adrift after their youngest child heads off to college in Garret Jon
Groenveld's new play The Empty Nesters at Z Space. Photo: David Allen

Quirks that once were endearing easily can mutate into habits that become exponentially aggravating. That's what happens in the first scene of The Empty Nesters, as a long-married couple waiting in line for a tourist attraction begins pushing buttons that are unexpectedly active. "I'm thinking of leaving you," Frances tells a stunned Greg, but you can't much blame her for trying to put a pin in his litanies of complaints. We want him to stop, too, but as Garret Jon Groenveld's play unfolds, Frances gets her chances to be annoying as well. Both think their own behavior is just more of the same old, same old, and besides, who brought the subject up first?

You probably wouldn't seek out this nitpicking pair for company, at least not at this moment in their lives, which can make formulating them into inviting theatrical company a challenge. The Empty Nesters is largely a non-stop argument between the two, and it is the introspection they are forced into and the steady vein of humor in their quarrels amid more serious matters that make them into viable characters.

Why those more serious matters have been triggered is signaled in the title, as newbie empty-nesters Greg and Frances have just sent their youngest child off to college. Having children to rear provided their lives with a format that has suddenly gone missing. "Why doesn't anybody ever talk about this time?" asks Franny about the transition from active parent to grandparent-in-waiting. Indeed, it is not a time widely explored in drama, though most of us can come to the topic from one direction or another.

Groenveld is a Bay Area playwright who has often worked in gay themes, and there is strong empathy evident for the lives of these stolidly heterosexual characters. That their son may be gay hardly registers as a matter for concern as Greg and Frances struggle with their out-of-focus lives. And their daughter seemed eager to put them in a rearview mirror, bidding them a quick adieu after delivery to her new dorm room. At least a problem child would have given them something to rally around.

The Empty Nesters takes place at the Grand Canyon, where the arguments begin, and at a nearby cafe and hotel where they continue. Specifically, the play opens at the Grand Canyon Skywalk, a glass-bottom attraction that juts 3,000 feet over the canyon. Both the chasm and the walkway offer obvious metaphors for the characters " "It's supposed to feel like there's nothing under you," says Frances " but Groenveld pushes at metaphorical boundaries in the conclusion that takes us back to the ungrounded Skywalk.

Real-life married actors JW Walker and Pamela Gaye Walker play Greg and Frances with the intimate shorthand that couples can offer, and they bring engaged takes on characters that need some friction to jumpstart their relationship. Longtime Bay Area director Richard Seyd has returned for his first local production since 2004, and he adeptly guides it through its necessarily talk-laden format.

The play was developed and presented last year by PlayGround with the same cast and a different director. Perhaps that production had a more helpful focus on the play's comic tone: mordant or sitcom, brittle or blithe? At Z Below, it's mostly sporadic.


The Empty Nesters will run through June 11 at Z Below. Tickets are $30-$58. Call (866) 811-4111 or go to