BWW Review: BLACKBERRY WINTER: Spring is Sure to Follow
Written by Steve Yockey, Directed by Bridget Kathleen O'Leary; Scenic & Puppetry Design, Matthew T. Lazure; Costume Designer, Becca Saenz; Lighting Designer, Christopher Brusberg; Composer & Sound Designer, David Reiffel; Stage Manager, Anna Burnham
Vivienne Avery is feeling anxious and vulnerable thanks to the white, business-sized envelope that she just received in the mail. It could contain an exorbitant bill from her mother's assisted living facility, or, more than likely, it is the directive for the next step on their journey toward the inevitable. Blackberry Winter is playwright Steve Yockey's thoughtful, poignant take on coming to terms with a parent's diagnosis of Alzheimer's Disease. New Repertory Theatre is one of a record seven participants in the National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere occurring across the country.
Yockey's play could not be in better hands than those of Director Bridget Kathleen O'Leary, who focuses on the complex human emotions rather than the disease, and Adrianne Krstansky (Vivienne), who is not afraid to wear her emotions on her sleeve and whose characterization is the epitome of vulnerability. Starting with the comfortably conversational manner of Vivienne's speech, tinged with a slight southern lilt, Krstansky breaks the fourth wall from the outset and immediately engages with the audience. Using a folksy tone and a smattering of colloquialisms, she makes Vivienne likable and sympathetic, even when the character admits her flaws. She responsibly drops a coin in a piggy bank each time she swears and does not shy away from admitting occasional bad thoughts about her mother.
Anyone who has dealt with caring for an aging parent, whether they lived with dementia or Alzheimer's or something else, will see themselves in this story. There are as many ways of coping as there are individuals in the caretaker role, but Yockey suggests a creative solution for his protagonist. Vivienne makes up a story about a White Egret (Paula Langton) and a Gray Mole (Ken Cheeseman) living in a verdant forest. The bird tries to preserve the memories of all the woodland animals by burying them in a box. However, while digging underground, the mole finds the box and unwittingly releases the memories, so they become irretrievably lost. Can you say "metaphor?" While Langton and Cheeseman relate the tale, the action is projected on a large screen behind them with colorful, primitive shadow puppets manipulated by unseen puppeteers. Although the actors are both charming storytellers, this segment didn't really work for me. It stopped the flow of Vivienne's narrative and felt like the playwright was trying to explain this grown-up problem to a group of children who wouldn't get it otherwise.
On the other hand, I do understand it as a means for Vivienne to rein in her anxiety. Clearly, she is having a difficult time with the progressive nature of the disease. The white envelope looms as the elephant in the room because of what might be inside; the next step for her mother is the nursing home. The myth releases some of the pressure she feels, but I prefer the light humor inherent in her recounting of what she's been through since getting the diagnosis three years earlier, as well as the quotidian ups and downs of the journey. As difficult as it is for Vivienne to face the fact that her mother is not going to get better, the richest part of the experience is discovering her own strengths and embracing acceptance.
Krstansky gives a performance that is authentic and nuanced, exhibiting the ups and downs of Vivienne's emotional roller coaster ride. The audience is her scene partner and the opening night crowd gave her a lot to feed off, allowing her to project the appearance of chatting with a group of friends about her intimate thoughts and feelings. She moves around the tiered set (designer Matthew T. Lazure), stopping at pedestals spaced at intervals, where she picks up everyday objects (scarves, a trowel, an iron) that trigger a reminiscence or story that opens a window into Vivienne's connection to her mother. A recipe box sparks a lovingly detailed recitation of how to make her mom's trademark coconut cake and reveals her own love of baking, which can be a great distraction during these troubling days.
About two-thirds of the way through the play, Yockey doubles down on the daunting facts of the illness and the seriousness of the situation. In response, Vivienne becomes more agitated and, conversely, more matter of fact. She has to look at the hereditary nature of Alzheimer's and worry about her own future, even as she struggles to do what's right for her mother and advocate for her. Krstansky shows this dichotomy with panic in her voice and a bout of tears that silences the audience, but she pulls herself together to focus on what is left, rather than what is lost. The play is called Blackberry Winter, but in the dark of the season, we know that Spring will come.
Photo credit: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures (Adrianne Krstansky)