Alzheimer’s disease, that dreaded affliction that is mostly associated with the elderly, has been dramatized in any number of scripts over the last twenty or so years. Among those that come to mind are “Iris” (a 2001 film in which Judi Dench played the stricken author, Iris Murdoch); “Away From Her” (the 2007 film starring Julie Christie); and “Still Alice (featuring Julianne Moore’s Academy Award winning portrayal from 2014). Those scripts all focus on the afflicted individuals and the way those around them react to the illness of a loved one.
Steve Yockey’s new play, “Blackberry Winter,” explores the impact of Alzheimer’s from a decidedly different perspective: that of the care-giver, not the patient. In his play, which is currently in production as a “rolling world premiere” at Capital Stage, Mr. Yockey focuses on the agony of a loving daughter who is dealing with her mother’s mental degeneration. The daughter, Vivienne, speaks directly to the audience from start to finish. It (the audience) essentially serves as her sounding board, if not her psychotherapist. It’s a clever conceit, one that allows each audience member to ponder his or her own way of relating to the daughter’s pain.
Vivienne is struggling with the many facets of being the closest relative with the most vivid memories of better times who is also responsible for the patient’s well-being. As the play opens, she has received a letter from the assisted-living facility where her mother has been residing since the disease progressed to the point where in-home care was no longer feasible. She fears that the letter (she does not open it) will tell her that her mother can no longer be cared for in the facility and that she needs to be in a nursing home, one with the capacity to provide more significant care and supervision.
Leaving the unopened letter aside, Vivienne then proceeds to relate her experiences and emotions in stories and reflections that are heavily sprinkled with humor, humor that only partially covers the pain. She tells of how she has constructed an imaginary tale, an allegory of sorts, featuring animals with memories that one of them seeks to secure and store. The tale unfolds in three parts, with one actor (Sara Lynn Wagner) playing the white egret that wants to save the memories. Another actor (Jacob Garcia) plays the gray mole that unwittingly comes upon them. Memories, the kind the egret tries to save and the mole intrudes upon, are the stuff of relationships, Vivienne discovers. But if only one of the two people in a relationship can retain those memories, can the relationship endure?
That and other questions are raised by Mr. Yockey’s script as Vivienne works through her pain in her monologue to the audience. The role is a demanding one, and it is wonderfully delivered in the Capital Stage production by Amy Resnick, who serves as both an every-person and a unique individual in relating her experience and her feelings over the course of the 90-minute one-act play. Ms. Resnick’s performance alone is reason enough to see this excellent production, directed Jonathan Williams (Cap Stage’s former Producing Artistic Director).
Another reason is the remarkable set design (by Mr. Williams) that subtly depicts the stages of mental degradation that Alzheimer’s imposes on its victims. And still another reason is the brilliant animation design (of the animal/memory tale that Vivienne created) that is shown on a backscreen while the actors playing the animals narrate the tale. It was specially created by Dan Lydersen for this production of the play, and it is really marvelous.
Mr. Williams chose this play along with the rest of the current season’s offerings before leaving Capital Stage to join his wife (Stephanie Gularte, the company’s founding Producing Artistic Director) at the American Stage theater company in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she is the new artistic director. He deserves great praise for the entire season of excellent plays of which “Blackberry Winter” is a standout. And in directing this play, he has given his former company another remarkable production that cuts to the heart of a most difficult issue that all of us, in one way or another, must one day face.
Performances of “Blackberry Winter” continue at Capital Stage through April 17. Tickets and information are available at the theater box office (2215 J Street), by phone (916-995-5464) or online (www.capstage.org).