BWW Reviews: THE BIG A: SCENES FROM A VANISHING LANDSCAPE Gives Perspective at Capital Fringe
"You know where I'd really like to go? Mars, I'd like to go to Mars." So says Lou, the beleaguered older son to his wife Amy, both of them dejected and exhausted from dealing with his aging parents' physical, emotional and cognitive deterioration. The unspoken, but profound commentary that even Mars would be less alien than the experience of losing your parents while they still sit across a table from you, is a poignant takeaway from this show. The other is that control over our own lives is much desired but often elusive; and whether caregiver or patient, Alzheimer's wrests that control away from all those touched by its impact.
Robert Epstein, writer and director of The Big A: Scenes From a Vanishing Landscape, based the play on his family's own experiences with aging, Alzheimer's and cancer. As a long-time New York and DC actor, acting teacher and Macomb Theater Company founder, Epstein felt that, instead of lecturing about the experience of Alzheimer's/dementia, he wanted to take the audience inside the reality; showing us the effects of the disease from varying perspectives within a theatrical context. We are invited inside the mind of the aging parent as he/she tries to make sense of the chaos that seems to be everywhere, and the struggle to communicate the terror and loneliness that wells up. And then we are back on the other side of that fear, with the frustrated and hurting son, feeling, I daresay, a great deal more empathy for both sides.
But it's not all gloomy; there's a great deal of warmth and humor in these characters. Particularly relatable and amusing were the phone calls between Lou and his parents, as he patiently attempts to unravel what's needed, rolling his eyes at the phone in frustration, but keeping his tone even and firm. And his younger brother's constant urging that he simply "slow down, breathe and relax," just as the seeming insanity of it all is only escalating. Parent, sibling and marital relationships are all touched on in The Big A, and that's as it should be; this is an equal opportunity disease. That said, I do feel that daughter-in-law Amy was drawn a bit too saintly; it seemed a missed opportunity to address the true strain placed on marriages in these situations. But perhaps that's for another play.
While the play is constructed from a series of short scenes, each a little story, there is a chronological structure. We watch the parents Alan and Janice progress in their individual dementia, and we see their children attempt to understand the increasing help each one needs. Like a crocheted blanket, the vignettes are stitched together with space between them; space that's effectively filled with darkness, generally unobtrusive set shifts, and carefully chosen snippets of songs that are far more than just musical interludes. Once I realized that the songs were carefully selected to underscore the theme of a scene we'd just witnessed, I began looking forward to those "spaces," sinking into the darkness and taking a moment to feel. My favorite choice was the use of the 1960s Jefferson Airplane song, White Rabbit, with its haunting sound, and wonderfully evocative lyrics. Take the verse played just after the son has cajoled his reluctant mother into taking her pills after she protests that they "don't do anything:"
One pill makes you larger
And one pill makes you small
And the ones that mother gives you
Don't do anything at all
I might reduce the length of some of the interludes, but otherwise, I loved the way in which the breaks were used, and the effective staging and lighting design.
Epstein believes that "acting is the ability to live truthfully in imaginary circumstances," and the actors, especially Kirk Lambert as the dad, Alan, Lois Bernstein as his wife Janice, and Mack Leamon as Lou, succeed mightily; playing their roles with such vulnerability and courage. This is highly personal stuff going on in The Big A, and we are fortunate to be taken on this journey with these brave souls.
I am always happy when a play title delivers. Here, the subtitle of this show says it all: Scenes From a Vanishing Landscape. On first reading, you might be tempted to think that the landscape that's disappearing is the one upon which the ill/elderly gaze. But as the vignettes unfold, it becomes clear that as the view from aging eyes clouds, the entire family's view starts to change and fade as well.
Another verse from the White Rabbit, heard between scenes, is quite an apt capsulation of what I suspect these characters are all feeling, and by the end, appropriately, the audience as well:
When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the white knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen's lost her head
Remember what the dormouse said
There are still three more chances to catch this evocative work at the Atlas Performing Arts Center on H St. NE between 13th and 14th Sts. Go to: https://www.capitalfringe.org/festival-2014/shows/415-the-big-a-scenes-from-a-vanishing-landscape for the show's Capital Fringe Festival page for more information and tickets.