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Terms of Endearment

Molly Ringwald and Jeb Brown have great fun with their colorful characters in the stage adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s novel best known for its movie version.

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Molly Ringwald and Hannah Dunne in a scene from “Terms of Endearment” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Molly Ringwald and Hannah Dunne in a scene from “Terms of Endearment” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

[avatar user=”Victor Gluck” size=”96″ align=”left” ] Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief[/avatar]It isn’t until the second act of Dan Gordon’s stage adaptation of Terms of Endearment, based on both the Larry McMurtry novel as well as the Academy Award-winning screenplay by James L. Brooks, that the play takes off. Featuring the now grown-up film star Molly Ringwald in the role of Aurora Greenway that won Shirley MacLaine the 1984 Oscar for Best Actress, the first act jumps around, skipping huge chunks of time as you can in movie cutting, but seems like something has been left out on stage.

Aurora’s daughter Emma is just born and then she is 18 and getting married and then it is six months later and has just found out that she is pregnant with her first child. When we next see her five more years have gone by and she has two children. Gordon seems to have trouble deciding just how much or how little of their thirty-year relationship to put on stage. While Michael Parva’s production becomes engrossing because of some of its colorful characters, it never makes you forget the movie which was one of the defining films of its era.

The play sticks close to the movie plot without ever really becoming comfortable on stage where three sets sit side by side, as well as using various furniture pieces which are brought in for single scenes elsewhere. Even in the prologue with Aurora and her baby daughter Emma, we discover that she is both overbearing and possessive. Widowed when Emma is eight, Aurora puts all her energies into her daughter and has no life of her own. When Emma decides to marry local boy Flip Horton, who wants to be a college English teacher, Aurora lets her know that Flip can’t be trusted and the marriage is a bad idea. This puts a strain on their relationship.. After their first child, Emma and Flip move away from Houston (which is never stated) for a college in Des Moines, Iowa, where Aurora and Emma speak on the phone every day.

Molly Ringwald and Jeb Brown in a scene from “Terms of Endearment” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Molly Ringwald and Jeb Brown in a scene from “Terms of Endearment” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

In the meantime, the middle-aged Aurora has begun an on-again, off-again relationship with her next-door neighbor Col. Garrett Breedlove, a womanizing ex-astronaut who usually pursues sexy young women in their twenties. When Emma suspects that Flip is cheating on her with his available female students, Aurora tells her to leave him but Emma is willing to stick it out because she loves him. After her third child, she has had it with him and moves back home. Things between Aurora and Emma really become close when Emma is diagnosed with a fatal disease and Garrett comes back into Aurora’s life. The play’s ending is a little different from the film, leaving one big decision up in the air at the end.

Although in summary it sounds like a soap opera, the humor and wisdom in the main characters make the story better than that. Aside from the attempt to put too much plot on stage, except for Ringwald’s Aurora and Jeb Brown’s Garrett, the actors are not very compelling. As the bigger than life Aurora who always speaks her mind even when it isn’t called for, Ringwald gets better and better as the evening goes on, finally letting us see the loneliness and hurt that she has been covering up all her life. Brown’s paunchy playboy ex-astronaut is another larger-than-life character and he makes the most of this juicy part that won Jack Nicholson an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Although he never puts you in mind of Nicholson (which is all to the good), he does make the part his own as he holds off Aurora who would pin him down if he would only let her.

Faced with these larger-tha- life characters, the other actors seem smaller by comparison. Although Hanna Dunne’s Emma holds her own against her mother, she seems a very ordinary person, unlike Debra Winger who made her a much more dynamic person in the film. Denver Milord as the unfaithful Flip is bland without being charming, a rather fatal combination. Jessica DiGiovanni appears in three essential but brief roles: Emma’s liberated best friend Patsy, Garrett’s 20-year-old date Doris, and Emma’s Nurse. Stage veteran John C. Vennema brings feistiness to the small parts of Aurora’s husband Rudyard and later Emma’s doctor at the hospital.

Jeb Brown and John C. Vennema in a scene from “Terms of Endearment” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

Jeb Brown and John C. Vennema in a scene from “Terms of Endearment” (Photo credit: Carol Rosegg)

David L. Arsenault’s setting with its severalrooms side by side solves the problem of the script’s many locales but often make the stage look cluttered. Michael McDonald’s costumes, on the other hand, define these people and how they see themselves. The many time changes are left to lighting designer Graham Kindred to establish by his equally multiple shifts. Quentin Chiappetta’s sound design includes many popular songs between the scenes which comment ironically on the action.

The stage version of Terms of Endearment, first seen in the United Kingdom in 2007 in a production headed by Linda Gray, now one of the producers, is a valiant attempt to put an iconic film on stage. However, as the story moves around so much and the casting is not entirely perfect, it is not all it should be. When the stakes are finally raised to a life and death situation, the story is ultimately engrossing and compelling as it was in the film.

Terms of Endearment (through December 11, 2016)

59E59 Theaters, 59 East 59th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit

Running time: two hours and 30 minutes including one intermission

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About Victor Gluck, Editor-in-Chief (995 Articles)
Victor Gluck was a drama critic and arts journalist with Back Stage from 1980 – 2006. He started reviewing for in 2006, where he was also Associate Editor from 2011-2013, and has been Editor-in-Chief since 2014. He is a voting member of The Drama Desk, the Outer Critics Circle, the American Theatre Critics Association, and the Dramatists Guild of America. His plays have been performed at the Quaigh Theatre, Ryan Repertory Company, St. Clements Church, Nuyorican Poets Café and The Gene Frankel Playwrights/Directors Lab.

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