'The Art of Disappearing': not your average family drama

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By Doug Deuchler

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A new play about Alzheimer's disease might not seem like an easy or enjoyable night out at the theater. But the world premiere of award-winning playwright Stephanie Alison Walker's drama, The Art of Disappearing at 16th Street Theater in Berwyn, offers an intense production that is taut and well-acted. The writing is sharp and penetrating, reflecting what I suspect might be a personal, family connection to the subject matter. 

Director Ann Filmer has worked closely with the playwright on this strong, affecting drama. The plot immediately pulls us in, then further layers are peeled back to reveal relationships with more clarity. I hesitate to describe the family we encounter with the overused term "dysfunctional," but these folks seem to have had their share of conflicts and issues before the onset of the wife and mother's Alzheimer's. 

This is not some trite Hallmark "disease of the week" melodrama either. We not only witness the effects of the degenerating illness on Charlotte but also on her family. 

Joan Kohn gives a brave, exquisitely nuanced performance, devoid of sentimentality. Kohn illustrates the painful journey of a woman living with a disease for which there is no cure. We see how as Charlotte's mind continues to slip, her relationships shift, too. 

One of the tragedies of Alzheimer's for the family members of the afflicted person is that the sufferer seems both present and absent at the same time. As Charlotte becomes more disoriented and increasingly isolated, there are surprising twists for her husband and daughter. 

Longstanding tension between Charlotte and Melissa still rears its head. The young woman claims her mother always pushed, nagged, and manipulated her, driving her away.

Charlotte and her husband live on the North Shore, close to the shore of Lake Michigan. Melissa lives in the city, seemingly right underneath the noisy elevated tracks.

Tom McElroy brings multiple dimensions to his performance as Charlotte's husband, Henry — initially in denial, then working hard to be tender and supportive. 

The daughter, played by Amanda Powell, is a struggling artist who has a vague relationship with an art dealer who is possibly her boyfriend. She has a lot of unsettled, conflicted feelings about her parents — especially her mother. In the opening scene, the young woman and the male friend (Andres Enriquez) show up at her parents' home after a two-year estrangement. It seems her mother has invited Melissa to brunch. But Charlotte is not even home; her husband seems to know nothing about the invitation. Before Charlotte's return, friction mounts, so the young couple leave abruptly. When Charlotte does return home, she not only denies inviting her daughter, she's convinced Melissa has stolen her sleeping pills.

Rodriquez plays two roles — Melissa's friend (whom she tells her father is her fiancé) and a doctor with X-rays (who identifies and explains scientifically "the skips and loops" in Charlotte's brain).

As Melissa's opportunities narrow — her upcoming art show is cancelled and her money decreases — she wonders if she should come home to assist her mom on her painful journey. Her father offers to pay her a salary to return and become a caregiver. But Charlotte is far from warm and fuzzy about her daughter. 

Charlotte is both touching and aggravating. 

"I'm attractive and have all my teeth," she points out. "People don't think I'm crazy." 

Kohn is especially bold when she delivers a poignant soliloquy, slowly stripping off her clothing.

Her manifestations of disorientation escalate. Charlotte gets lost on her way home from the Jewel. She puts up Christmas decorations in May. Melissa refers to her mom as being "erased from the inside out."

16th Street Theater always has a theme for their season. This year it's "Fathers Daughters Mothers Sons." Each production will focus on family dynamics.

The theater company, by the way, is currently gathering letters written by fathers. On March 4 some of the letters in their collection will be presented at a "Celebration of Dads" at FitzGerald's.

The handsome set designed by Joanna Iwanicka is flexible, becoming a variety of locations, from a living room to a restaurant. There are some composite-style framed photo groups on the walls, but they are empty, as if the mental images of who was in the pictures have already been erased. 

In one segment, the daughter sets down her wine glass; in the next moment, with minimal scene changes, we are in another room as the mother picks up and drinks from the same glass — like a jump cut in a movie.

Cat Wilson's lighting design is especially effective, accenting the emotions of the moment. The original music and sound is by Barry Bennett. Mallory Bass is the stage manager. 

The Art of Disappearing is a tight and absorbing drama about a family confronted with Alzheimer's disease. It's chilling and often grim but the performances are accomplished. I have found myself thinking about it ever since I saw it on opening night.

The play has also been Jeff-recommended.

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