by John Stoltenberg
Does a play about an incurable progressive disease not sound like something you’d care to see? Does a character’s long, lone monologue about her mother’s memory loss to Alzheimer’s not seem appealing? Is the topic itself too fraught because it is already familiar in your life? If so, I have two words for you:
In Forum Theatre’s provocative production of Steve Yockey’s brand-new Blackberry Winter directed by Michael Dove, Holly Twyford is giving DC audiences a tour de force performance that is unforgettable. No pun intended.
Twyford claims the stage, earns our trust, and wins over our hearts with wit and warmth. She introduces herself as Vivienne Avery and speaks to us not like a scripted character but as someone real we are getting to know. As Twyford moves about the thrust stage, she acknowledges our presence with genuine regard. She seems merely with her eyes to eliminate all distance between her and us. When she talks to us, her words don’t even sound written by someone else; they seem to be Vivian’s in the moment. And through it all, Vivian lets us in on her fears in a way that makes them more faceable, both by her and by us.
Forum is one of eight National New Play Network theaters mounting Blackberry Winter as a rolling world premiere. Producing Artistic Director Dove has observed that Yockey’s plays “have an ability to theatricalize and unlock difficult conversations and topics.” And the topic of Alzheimer’s is nothing if not difficult.
Vivienne presents herself as carefully pulled together, proper, polished—the sort of person who has a place for everything and everything in its place. That includes about a dozen props placed on pedestals around the stage, each of which will serve as a prompt for a section of her storytelling. The first prop Vivienne turns to is an envelope, which contains a letter from the assisted living facility where her mother, Rosemary Davis, has been for three years. Vivienne dreads that the letter will say it’s time to move Rosemary to a nursing home—an excruciating decision for anyone to have to make. So Vivienne tries to distract herself by talking to us to avoid opening the envelope.
Besides an illuminatingly candid depiction of someone trying to cope with overwhelming and contradictory emotions—from fond memories to panic, from composure to collapse—what emerges in Blackberry Winter is a fascinatingly frank story of an adult daughter’s relationship with her mother. Perhaps all daughter-mother relationships are complicated in their own way, but this one rings so true that when Vivienne produces a photograph of Rosemary and shows it to the audience, we do not see a prop; we see the face of the woman she has been telling us about.
Vivienne has taken to baking in the middle of the night because of the insomnia that has set in from stress. In one of many wry laugh lines, Vivienne says,
I don’t drink but lately I’ve become jealous of people who do. And I’m intensely aware of how that sounds.
Plucking a card out of a recipe box on a pedestal, Vivienne reads off the ingredients for coconut cake and recalls baking it with her mother, who always put the batter into two pans. Vivienne decisively uses three. Her mother, Vivienne tells us, has forgotten how to bake the recipe herself (and for her safety would not be allowed near an oven). But once when Rosemary was watching Vivienne bake that cake, she knew to correct her daughter on how many pans are supposed to be used.
In such touching anecdotes are contained telling traces of two entwined lives—the once cared-for child now become “proactive care manager” to the parent. There are also some troubling incidents recounted—as would have to be the case. Alzheimer’s, as Vivienne reminds us, only ever gets worse. But many of Vivienne’s recollections are just flat-out funny, as for instance the one she tells about a pile of stylish scarves. Rosemary persisted in buying them for her not respecting, then not remembering, that Vivienne really hates wearing them.
Early on Vivienne tells us that besides occupying her mind with all-night baking she has been cooking up “a bit of amateur cosmogony” to understand the origin of Alzheimer’s.
I’ve been trying my hand at some creation myths to explain away the awful. Or make it palatable, which is ridiculous.
Thus at three points in the play Vivienne snaps her fingers, the lighting goes dappled green, and the scene shifts to a forest wherein a fable is played out, partly in verse by White Egret (a charming Sara Dabney Tisdale) and Gray Mole (an amusing Ahmad Kamal) and partly in animated projections that could be illustrations from a Newberry-winning children’s book.
The sleek scenic design by Debra Kim Sivigny (who also did costumes and props) sets blond wood pedestals on blond wood flooring that gets bleached to be the upstage wall where Patrick Lord’s enchanting projections are shown. The cutaways to the forest fable are beautifully achieved by Lighting Designer John D. Alexander and Sound Designer Thomas Sowers.
Depending on one’s point of view, the effect of these interpolated fable scenes may come as a diverting theatricalization, serving to relieve and lighten what would otherwise be a straightforward solo performance piece. Alternately, the fable scenes may seem like preschool redux, an infantilizing interruption in Vivienne’s engaging grownup emotional arc. (If the playwright had seen what Twyford does in the role, might he have trusted Vivienne to carry the show?)
Either way, Forum Theater’s Blackberry Winter is a production to savor. Most of all, one gets to know, up close and personal, a brilliantly written Vivienne Avery, phenomenally performed by Holly Twyford, whose ultimately courageous memorial to her mother’s dimming memory makes us mindful of both the mind’s fragility and the mind’s resilience.
Running Time: 95 minutes, with no intermission.
Blackberry Winter plays through June 11, 2016, at Forum Theatre, performing at the Silver Spring Black Box Theatre – 8641 Colesville Road, in Silver Spring, MD. For tickets, call (301) 588-8270, or purchase them online.