Thursday, 8 March 2018

Forget About Tomorrow looks @ Alzheimer's collateral damage with faith, hope and charity
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

From the footlights : To truly live in the "now" requires one to literally "forget about tomorrow". Then there's actor / playwright Jill Daum's approach : write an autobiographical play about her husband John Mann's early-onset Alzheimer's that finds him now, at just 55, in a Vancouver care home. (John was co-founder, lead singer and prime mover of Vancouver's Celtic-rock band Spirit of the West, est.1983.)

Part of the Mom's The Word collective as both co-writer and actor, Daum germinated the idea for her first solo show before John was formally diagnosed five years back. Previously on staff at the Kidsbooks shop on West Broadway, Daum had already started writing an "everywoman" script. Her goal was to tell a tale of how being "just a normal family" provides as many challenges and as much joy and pain as those of the rich and famous.

Husband Tom (Craig Erickson) sings an anniversary lullaby to wife Jane (Jennifer Lines) that speaks of how today is the only day, for now, of the rest of your life.
Photo credit David Cooper
John enthusiastically embraced Jill's idea to morph her play into a story that details his Alzheimer's journey. He did so with the same eagerness he evinced in writing the songs for a solo album "The Waiting Room" in 2009-2010. Morris Panych subsequently made his songbook into a play that ACT produced in 2015 and Mann sang in. It got rave reviews. That story detailed Mann's successful fight against colorectal cancer -- a vicious bout that now is chief suspect as the catalyst for the Alzheimer's that hit him a few short years after.

The last two songs Mann ever wrote book-end his wife's play, the first an anniversary lullaby, the last called "Forget to Forget". "Working on the music was as cathartic for him as the words in the play were for me," Daum notes. 

How it's all put together : Daum wanted to emphasize the ordinariness of the circumstances her characters portray. So she started by giving them straightforward names : Tom (Craig Erickson) and Jane (Jennifer Lines). 

How Jane and their adult children Aaron (Aren Okemaysim) and Wynn (Aleita Northey) grapple with Dad's inexorable and inescapable disease in its early phases is the stuff of the play.  But unlike Lisa Genova's Still Alice which is mostly about the stricken protagonist, here the focus is on the well one -- the person destined to be chief caregiver and survivor -- Jane.

Wife Jane (Jennifer Lines) swaps titillating romantic daydreams with her boss  Lori (Colleen Wheeler) as both women, while married, contemplate the aloneness they feel in their respective worlds.
Photo credit David Cooper
The first word that comes to mind, of course, is fear. Then the whole DANDA algorithm identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. All the energy to aid her failing husband who soon will not even know her name.

Along the way, of course, thoughts about life's meaning : is there any?  Would, could, should the prospect of a romantic interlude with a flirty widower (Hrothgar Matthews) help Jane cope? In a godless world, why-or-why not seem to have near-equal magnetism. (Daum noted in an interview [a] that the romantic interlude piece is a wholly fictional bit, and [b] that husband John, when still compos mentis, found this plot twist both amusing and intriguing).

What the show brings to the stage :  Daum cites her emerging and ongoing and crescendoing fears, certainly.  She describes Alzheimer's as "exceedingly cruel". Because it "doesn't only smother the unique, exquisite minds of vibrant, beautiful people -- it also ransacks families and haunts us all." She also identifies another emotion probably not normally thought of : the "shame" that this "pointless, horrible disease" visits on family members. She seems to be asking an interesting rhetorical question along the way : how do the words "caretaker" and "caregiver" differ, how do they intersect, how and when and why do they seem to switch places with one another?                  

As Mann did years back singing about his cancer and hospital episodes, Daum introduces as much comedy as possible into her script. The role of baby boutique owner Lori -- played flawlessly by Colleen Wheeler a la Rosalind Russell doing Auntie Mame six decades later -- was clearly one of Daum's chief cathartic outlets in writing this show. Not to mention a generous parroting of Daum et al's humour from the Mom's the Word series is at play as well, particularly in reference to Jane and Tom's children. 

Production values that hi-lite the script : Two aspects jump out here, namely the Pam Johnson set with its floor-to-ceiling backdrop of cross-rail panels -- representing Jung's "doors of perception" perhaps -- but most notably the lazy-susan centrepiece with its L-shaped countertop that swivels and toggles between Jane and Tom's kitchen and the baby boutique front counter.

As well, Candelario Andrade's projections onto the upstage wall of the children skyping and sniping and whining from their respective cribs back east were effective. His contrasting black-&-white movie scrim of giant cumulonimbus clouds with an endless sortie of crows launching into them added a clever retro-Alfred Hitchcock punch to the viewer's eye.

Good lighting design and soundscape, too, combined with the just-right contrast of Rodeo Drive glistening threads for boutique owner Lori opposite Jane's Blundstone boots that anchor her everyday Mark's Work Wearhouse denim uniform.  

Acting pin-spots :  Director Michael Shamato's casting was note-perfect for this oh-so-personal play. As suggested above, playwright Daum clearly relied upon so-called comic relief as a primary outlet for her to manage the multiple layers of emotion she dealt with as both the centrepiece of the autobiography and her challenge as a playwright in how to make meaningful and successful drama for others to engage in. "So-called" because at times the character of Lori threatens to upstage the more visceral undercurrents we are being asked to share emotionally with this family.

That is not, however, so much a piece of "criticism" as it is applause to the playwright for traversing such tricky terrain with a dramatic eye and an empathy for this real-life ongoing gut-blow she is describing.

As Jane, Jennifer Lines brought it all : pathos, agony, flirty sexiness, guilt, shame. A big Brava! there. Opposite as husband Tom, Craig Erickson once again demonstrated what power he commands doing serious, emotionally-challenging role portrayals. His depiction of a man utterly fogged and befuddled and desperate in his fading grasp of "now" was not just genuine but grippingly sad to behold. 

Who gonna like : This play has so much comedy to it it would be hard to classify it as anything but. Yet the subject matter of "How do you think you would deal with this agony and disorientation in your family?" is a profound and complex and necessary question to ask. 

There are moral considerations. There are practical considerations. There are, most of all, emotional considerations. How does one balance loyalty and faithfulness and integrity toward a grievously and irreversibly sick loved-one and still remain whole and safe and sane so caregiver does not become caretaker instead?

This is powerful drama with terrific antic moments that ease the underscoring pain. Of what ACT has on offer this season, Forget About Tomorrow is a show not to be missed for poignance, relevance and heart.

ParticularsScript by Jill Daum. Music by John Mann. Produced by ACT in collaboration with the Belfry Theatre, Victoria.  At the BMO 1st Avenue Stage.  Run-time 2-hours,15 minutes -plus- intermission.  On until March 25, 2018.  Schedules and ticket information @ or by phoning 604.687.1644.

Production crew :  Jill Daum, Playwright.  Michael Shamata, Director [Artistic Director of Victoria's Belfry Theatre]. Pam Johnson, Set & Costume Designer.  Bryan Kenney, Lighting Designer.  Candelario Andrade, Projection Designer.  James Coomber, Sound Designer.  Rachel Ditor, Dramaturg.  Caryn Fehr, Stage Manager.  Ronaye Haynes, Assistant Stage Manager.

Performers :  Craig Erickson (Tom).  Jennifer Lines (Jane). Hrothgar Matthews (Wayne). Aleita Northey (Wynn).  Aren Okemaysim (Aaron).  Colleen Wheeler (Lori). 


No comments:

Post a Comment