BWW Review: ABSENCE Offers Inside View of Dementia
Written by Peter M. Floyd; Director, Megan Schy Gleeson; Stage Manager, L. Arkansas Light; Assistant Stage Manager, Kaylee D'Amico; Scenic Design, Tom Gleeson; Lighting Design/Sound Design, David Wilson; Costume Design, Rachel Padula Shufelt; Props Artisan, Megan F. Kinneen
Performances through March 2 at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.bostonplaywrights.org
One of the most common traits of aging is forgetfulness. We make jokes about it ("Why did I come into this room?"), chalk it up to our overloaded schedules, and practice mnemonic tricks to overcome it. However, for the ever-increasing number of Americans living with dementia or Alzheimer's disease, garden variety forgetfulness would be a blessing. In Peter M. Floyd's new play Absence, dedicated to his late mother Alline Wheeler Floyd, he explores the inexorable decline of a 76-year old woman and deconstructs its impact on her family and the long-held rancor in their relationships. Without sidestepping the harsh reality, Floyd mixes wit and poignance with incisive characterization to create a touching slice of life.
Absence is a challenging showcase for the lead actress who remains onstage throughout the entire piece. Of note, said lead actress Joanna Merlin was ill and unable to perform during the opening weekend, but the show must go on. Fortunately, understudy Kippy Goldfarb stepped in and stepped up to handle the role of Helen as if she had spent her life in preparation for it. She has natural chemistry with Dale Place (as husband David), Anne Gottlieb (as daughter Barb), and Beverly Diaz (as granddaughter Samantha), whether sharing spousal affection or bristling at their concerns over Helen's diminishing capacity. Goldfarb expertly captures the orneriness, pride, fear, and confusion that her character experiences. As a woman accustomed to being in control, the unpredictability of her insidious condition is almost as distressing as the disease itself.
Helen is not the only one who suffers; her family members endure the bumpy ride of her journey as well, and their experiences are influenced by the nature of their lifelong relationships. Throughout their marriage, David has been the passenger with his wife at the wheel because it was easier than bucking her. As her memory fails, he struggles to exert the control that is necessary to keep things on an even keel, while she tries to maintain the status quo. Place uses body language and tone of voice to great effect, especially in the scene where he is trying desperately not to repeat the argument that Helen and David have about which of them is the strong one. Later in the play, Place appears briefly as a gregarious orderly who has a nice rapport with Helen, serving as an ironic counterpoint to that of the husband and wife.
The mother-daughter dynamic is central to Floyd's drama and Gottlieb bravely portrays the insensitive offspring of a flawed parent. It is a credit to her acting ability that she is not totally unsympathetic, even as she comes across as lacking compassion for her mother, conveying strong feelings of annoyance, at times bordering on disdain. As much as Barb faults Helen for being judgmental and disappointed in her during her upbringing, Barb continues the cycle in her mothering style with Samantha. For her part, Diaz has the eye-rolling, bored teenager shtick down pat, but she really digs deep in a pivotal, middle of the night scene with her grandmother.
In the midst of the angst and agitation, enter Dr. Bright (Bill Mootos) who does his best to live up to his name. He wears pastel scrubs to complement his sunny disposition and he speaks plainly, yet soothingly to Helen at some of her worst moments. Of course, she is the only one who sees him, but she comes to rely on his appearing because he understands what she's going through. Mootos revels in the role and does a mean Frank Sinatra impersonation, aided by Rachel Padula Shufelt's costume choices. Cheryl D. Singleton plays Helen's actual doctor as caring, if a little remote, and doubles as a welcoming administrator at the facility where Helen later resides. Floyd doesn't really develop these two women, but Singleton does what she can to differentiate between them.
Megan Schy Gleeson takes the directorial reins for Absence in her first stint at Boston Playwrights' Theatre. She more than meets the challenges of Floyd's non-linear script which often skips periods of time to reflect Helen's disintegration, creating a flow that makes it all seem very natural. Scenic Designer Tom Gleeson uses sliding semi-opaque panels and hospital style curtains to suggest various settings, and David Wilson's lighting design augments each area with a particular mood. A pair of standard doors flanks the panels and, lacking exterior handles, the actors often have trouble getting them to open from the stage side. This was a distraction that could easily be remedied. Packing boxes aligned along the front of the stage and piled high in corners offstage are gradually removed during the play, like Helen's fading memories. Wilson also handles sound design and uses music evocatively.
Floyd was inspired to try to understand what his mother went through and see the world as she experienced it after being diagnosed with memory loss. It is an unusual approach; using that viewpoint makes the play resonate with a powerful, human intensity. The aging process requires us to accept change and learn to let go of many things. We expect to lose loved ones along the way, but Absence delves into the painful reality that sometimes only the body awaits the arrival of death.
Photo credit: Kalman Zabarsky (Beverly Diaz, Anne Gottlieb)