Peter Floyd’s lovely ABSENCE (@ Boston Playwrights’ Theatre through March 3rd) is a poignant, even redemptive story about “forgetery” (my own mother’s invented word for her frightening slide into dementia). Like Arthur Kopit’s heroine in WINGS, Helen can’t process what people are saying. Like Kopit, Floyd immerses us in Helen’s point of view so we can experience the confusing gibberish she’s struggling with as she loses her ability to understand words or remember people. (My absolute favorite of Floyd’s nonsensical phrases: “It’s trellis in the unconditional dirt.”)
Conventional wisdom about dementia and Alzheimer’s maintains that whatever difficult qualities the person exhibited prior to onset, will worsen with the disease. But if you’ve seen the exquisite film, IRIS, you know that the opposite can occur. Murdoch became a pussy cat, as did my formidable mother.
Floyd starts Helen out as a strong willed, self sufficient woman who brooks no interference so we get to see the frustration her family encounters, trying to cope. Floyd slowly ratchets up her helplessness, her vulnerability and her desperation. Little by little, our allegiance shifts and we find ourselves pulling for Helen to somehow reconcile with her frazzled daughter and in some miraculous way to find peace. Hooray for Floyd. He finds a nifty dramatic way to pull it all off.
Suffice it to say, ABSENCE speaks to me because I’ve been there, done that but I think even if you haven’t had a brush with dementia, you can appreciate the story telling and the real ring of truth…and you’ll be impressed with director Megan Schy Gleeson’s extraordinary cast.
Joanna Merlin was ill so Kippy Goldfarb took over the role of Helen at my performance and gave an astonishing tour de force. When Helen and her granddaughter (a spirited Beverly Diaz) have their harrowing scene together, a “Please, please” from Goldfarb reduced me to tears (and I don’t cry easily at the theater). And tears again, when the wonderful Anne Gottlieb, as Helen’s longsuffering daughter, rails at her mother and in a moment of “clarity,” Goldfarb is able to comfort her.
Bill Mootos provides the welcome laughter (and solace) in ABSENCE, Cheryl D. Singleton, the professional kindness and Dale Place, the grounding in reality. Don’t miss this remarkable glimpse into the terrible workings of the mind.