New Rep's "Blackberry Winter": Having No Egrets

Adrianne Krstansky in "Blackberry Winter"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

If you've never been a resident of the midwest or southern U.S., the term Blackberry Winter might not be a familiar one. It refers to a late spring frost or cold snap that can occur even as the local blackberry bushes are in bloom. It's also the title of the National New Play Network “rolling world premiere” of a play, written by Steve Yockey, which is receiving its New England premiere at New Repertory Theatre in Watertown, under the Direction of Bridget Kathleen O'Leary. Leaving aside the inherently oxymoronic concept of multiple world premieres (with a record seven productions for this play), this is a work worth the rolling.

The play, at just under ninety minutes, revolves around the character of Vivienne (Adrianne Krstansky) who is facing the harsh reality that her mother's Alzheimer's disease is worsening. Her first reaction to an as-yet-unopened letter from the assisted living facility where her mother is a resident is to refuse to open it, in classic approach-avoidance mode. A deeper part of her process of dealing with the crisis is to imagine a fable, here acted out on stage with a background usage of shadow puppetry, in which she has fantasized an “origin myth” about the disease. Actors representing a White Egret (Paula Langton) attempt to preserve the memories of the forest animals in a box to be buried underground, and a Gray Mole (Ken Cheeseman), prone to digging things up, which releases these memories which are then lost. It's a clever conceit, though suffers from being presented in three segments, as it's too simple (and, it must be said, simplistic) to sustain any dramatic arc. Vivienne's vulnerability is marvelously portrayed by Krstansky even as she allows these fabulous elements to help her give herself permission to take stock, acknowledge and admit just how much the story is about her as “the proactive family care manager”. O'Leary has noted that the play is not strictly speaking about the disease itself, but how the caregiver for a loved one with the disease copes and allows herself “the space for things to change”. The stage contains several pedestals upon which are simple everyday objects (a trowel, an iron, a red marker, a piggy bank, and so on), each of which will provide Vivienne with some reassuring comfort. All these everyday items become ideas that help with the playwright's storytelling about Alzheimer's. The “long goodbye”, as it was so accurately described by a former First Lady, is in fact much more the journey of the caregiver than the patient.

Under O'Leary's keen direction, Krstansky gives yet another amazing performance, which certainly qualifies for that overly-used designation of “riveting”. Langton and Cheeseman do what they can with essentially cardboard characters that serve at least to give the lead actress an opportunity to rest. The technical contributions are all fine, from the Costume Design by Becca Saenz, to the Lighting Design by Christopher Brusberg, to the Sound Design by David Reiffel. Special note should be made of the Scenic and Puppetry Design by Matthew T. Lazure. Other productions of the play have reportedly used projected cartoons, which sounds on the surface like a misguided choice.

Yockey (who also wrote afterlife: a ghost story, presented a few seasons ago and also featuring Krstansky), seems to know whereof he speaks, with acutely accurate observations.  O'Leary questions in the program “what it means to be known (when) one of us forgets the story”. Typically in such cases, it's not so much forgetfulness of the story as it is the roles to be played by caregiver and patient. In real life, victims of this cruel disease tend to recognize a caregiver as a source of feeling safe even if not able to identify her or him. (Full disclosure: this critic worked as a nurse in several assisted living facilities with memory-impaired units).  But this is the accounting of a caregiver's strength, love, and endurance.

This treatment of a profoundly serious subject is not without its touches of humor, which Vivienne uses frequently as a defense mechanism. She speaks of having to develop a “bullet proof smile” and “social camouflage”, even as she yearns for a setting that would truly be ”individualized, personal”, and not just platitudes. She recognizes the “odd flip” with her now being responsible for her mother. She also sees the need to keep her mother active, for a staff to engage rather than control. Most modern facilities at least give lip service to the approach of navigating the world that memory-impaired residents live in, validating their world rather than imposing upon them a world they have forgotten. Her mother, with confabulations common to people afflicted with this cruel condition, is no longer the double-major graduate in education and linguistics.

It's an honest, well-researched and wisely written play. The only misstep is in Vivienne's guilt about expressing what a “blessing it would be (for her mother) to die in her sleep”. Rather than a valid source of self-recrimination, this is a common and perfectly understandable view. Towards the end of the play, she wisely asserts that “It's about what's left; it has to be about what is left” and admits that she can't make her mother's brain better, but refuses to admit that she can't face that fact. As she sums it all up: “all this fear... who has time for it?”. There is probably not a single theatergoer who hasn't faced this issue, or will in the future. This is the Blackberry Winter of our discontent.

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