GLOUCESTER -- There's one excellent reason to see ''My Old Lady" at Gloucester Stage: the old lady.
Eric C. Engel's graceful production of Israel Horovitz's play, which follows the complications arising from an American's inheritance of his father's apartment in Paris, offers many other rewards as well: snappy but sensitive pacing, imaginative scene changes, and wonderfully atmospheric incidental jazz. But it's Nancy E. Carroll, as the elderly woman who surprises the new owner with her rightful claim to stay in the apartment, who rightfully claims center stage as well.
Madame Mathilde Giffard is living in the apartment under an unusual French system known as the ''viager," meaning that the American's father bought it cheap and, in exchange, let the previous owner remain for life -- and paid her maintenance fees to boot. As she wryly explains to the baffled Mathias Gold, a penniless 50-ish writer who is dismayed to inherit this debt, a viager is a gamble that the old owner will die soon, and sometimes the gambler loses. She, for example, is 92.
Framed by a neat French twist, Carroll's finely modulated features project a wiry, delicate strength that's just right for Mathilde. Carroll herself is no more 92 than she is French, but her every gesture -- slow, exact, self-assured -- persuades us otherwise. Her voice, too, is precise and expressive, with a charming French accent.
Still more enchanting is Carroll's ability to create a fully rounded, complex, fascinating human being. Even when Horovitz's story takes a few implausible turns, Carroll impels us to follow it right around the bend.
She's helped immeasurably by the assured Harold Dixon, reprising a role he played in Tucson. Rumpled, bluff, and irredeemably boyish, Dixon's Mathias is as American as Carroll's Mathilde is French. The story makes much of this contrast, sometimes amusingly and sometimes, especially in Act 2, preachily. But Dixon's light touch as Mathias, at once charmed and annoyed by Mathilde, helps keep the interplay from degenerating into a duel of cliches.
Mathias's relationship with Chloe Giffard, the daughter who has sacrificed her independence for her mother, is more problematic. Partly this is because Amelia Broome does not persuade us completely either of her Frenchness or of her repression. Her accent is mostly accurate and her carefully made-up features controlled, but she moves with the rangy, loose-limbed freedom of an American woman. And Molly Trainer's generally astute costumes -- classic skirts for Mathilde, baggy sportswear for Mathias -- let Chloe down, with too-long trousers and patterned slippers that clash with her robe.
The real fault with Chloe, though, lies neither in her shoes nor in her movements, but in the script. When Horovitz sends his story down a darker path, it's Chloe's character and her connection to Mathias that veer most dangerously close to melodrama.
Still, these are three interesting characters -- four if you count the apartment, which in Jenna McFarland's shabby-chic design, all tattered brocades and faded filigree, does take on a life of its own.
There are worse places to spend a couple of hours than in an apartment overlooking the Jardins du Luxembourg, and worse company than the complicated, witty, flawed, and wistful creatures who each long to call this one home.
Louise Kennedy can be reached at email@example.com.