Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Norman and Beatrice: Reading Lost Minds

I'm not sure if something that happens in the first five minutes of a play can be considered a "plot twist", but there is a surprising realization that comes near the beginning of "Norman and Beatrice". An old but still obviously spry man stands gazing out his kitchen window, dressed to head out into the glow of the snow. He banters playfully with his wife of 54 years, flirting and cracking jokes. It's a while before the audience sees for certain that Norman has Alzheimer's disease.

The two character piece is the latest presentation by Synapse Productions, who recently gained attention and a Drama Desk nod for "Animal Farm (The Puppet Musical)". Award winning playwright Barbara Hammond, whose one-act play "June Weddings" is currently being turned into a film, has very personal source material that informs he latest play; She wrote "Norman and Beatrice" based on her own parents, and the close bond that deepened as her fathers' mind became more disjointed.

It is startling and heartening to see humor brought into a play about dementia. The topic, when addressed at all, is usually handled with a focus on the tragedy of losing ones' identity, and the heartbreak of having to take care of those who once took care of everyone else.

Norman offers a sincere, paranoid protest about his lunch: "What if it's poisoned?" "Why would I want to poison you?", retorts Bea, gently. He responds with a smile. "That's how you get away with it! No motive." These moments when he realizes his confusion and makes a joke of it make this play something honest and special. There is genuine humor here, but we are laughing with Norman, not at him.

In the second act, we travel back in time see the couple on another Sunday morning, three months into their marriage. The younger pair is still learning about one another. Seeing the disconnects in communication and the faltering bids for attention that come from youthful insecurity make the comfortable commitment of the first half even more beautiful.

As Norman, Graeme Malcolm is brilliant. The pure joy on his aged face when his wife informs him, as if for the first time, that they have a whopping seven children ("Holy Toledo! I'm a lucky guy."), apruptly brought me to tears. His transformation from the charming, bewildered old man in the first act to the gutsy newlywed in the second act is wonderfully subtle. He has an equally dazzling partner in Jane Nichols. The older incarnation of Beatrice seems in constant motion, fixing a sandwich, carrying the laundry, but always keeping her hand close to the countertop to steady herself. Watching her answer her husbands' constant questions is a revelation: practiced patience, mild exasperation, lighthearted teasing. She is not an unrealistically noble martyr, but a fragile human who is doing what she can to make their lives livable. This sweet but pragmatic caretaker is made even more impressive when we see the needy, serious Bea of the first act.

Director David Travis has helped his actors foster a realistic relationship. He lets the piece stand as a slice of life without trying to add unnecessary profundity. Similarly, Norman and Beatrice's surroundings are astonishing in an every day way. Costumes by Camille Assaf are note perfect. Lighting designer Marcus Doshi even brings the glow of snow through the windows, and helps to being a sense of out protagonists being in their own world. Luke Hegel-Cantarella's fantastically detailed set will be familiar to anyone who has been in the longtime home of people who lived through World War II; over-stuffed with obscure knick-knacks, postcards and photos from children, grandchildren, and far-away friends in a magnetized collage on the refrigerator, mismatched dishes and souvenir mugs in the cupboards, even a well worn bread drawer. The transformation to the spare, orderly room in the first act is excellent.

Ms. Hammond has written and simple, honest, and beautiful account of what Alzheimer's does, and doesn't, change. Anyone who has lost a person they loved long before their mortal coil expired will recognize the moments and emotions of Norman and Beatrice.

Photo Credit: Marcus Doshi

All photos: Graeme Malcolm and Jane Nichols

Related Articles

From This Author Margaret Cross

MARGARET CROSS was born in Ohio, raised in Florida, and currently resides in New York City, where she is a singer and actress. She is (read more...)