“Words, words, words,” Hamlet sneered at Polonius, who had asked him what he was reading, but to Alida (Helen-Jean Arthur), a brilliant writer now in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, they are the guideposts which will keep her memories aglimmer even as her synapses misfire. They are, to the fiercely independent and private Alida, the equivalent of Gretel’s breadcrumbs: a device to keep wicked forces at bay, and to show the way home.
They are also, of course, the tools by which Jennifer Haley’s heartbreakingly beautiful new play, now receiving its world premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, uses to (in Dylan Thomas’excellent phrase) “rage against the dying of the light.” Stories are the ways we explain ourselves to ourselves, and thus eventually the way we become ourselves.
We see this immediately, as Beth (Eva Kaminsky), a good-natured but somewhat dim nurse’s aide, first realizes that she has been writing up the wrong file when she calls Alida by the wrong name. Later, they tell each other stories — thinly disguised versions of their own lives – in the guise of a memory test. Beth’s story is tragic: booted out of the family home at fifteen, she has spent the remainder of her life trying to find someone who loves her, so that she can love herself. Alida’s story is a little more complicated.
She tells it in dribs and drabs, each memory, reluctantly conjured, moving us closer to the mystery which is at the heart of the play and her life. Her version of the story of Gretel (Hansel, being redundant, has been removed from the scene) is a truncated one, which ends as Gretel encounters the witch in the candy home (featuring, in Alida’s version, walls of “chocolate flesh…and a mucous-striped roof’). So, of course, it is with us. Our travels end at a place, as Hamlet says “from whose bourne no traveler returns.”
Haley’s particular strategy in taking us with Alida is to intersperse encounters between Alida and Beth – who has decided to assist Alida in writing her memoirs – with scenes between Alida as a child (Arthur) and her mother (Kaminsky). Alida’s mother, like Beth, seeks to define herself by the men who keep her, and perversely chases after drunks, liars and abusers in the hope of finding love and security. As we delve deeper and deeper into Alida’s childhood, we move closer and closer to the secret which animates her life: the secret she intends not to reveal.
There is a present-day conflict as well. Like many sufferers of dementia, Alida recalls the past as a way to keep it alive in the face of her evaporating mental abilities. But at the same time Alida is horrified not only by the past but by the prospect of sharing it with anyone else. (Discovering that someone has posted a Wikipedia entry for her sends her into paroxysm of rage.) As Alida’s mind bubbles away, Beth alternately becomes her lifeline and her mortal enemy.
In less competent hands, the rapid interplay of past and present would promote only confusion, but Arthur and Kaminsky do full justice to Haley’s daring technique. I cannot say enough about Kaminsky’s subtle craftsmanship. Beth is a desperate social failure, awash in loneliness and shipwrecked on a loveless sea. Alida’s mother is a desperate social failure, awash in loneliness and shipwrecked on a loveless sea but putting on an optimistic face, to keep her daughter’s spirits up. In Kaminsky’s hands, these are two entirely distinct women, and you can tell at every instant which one she is. It is masterfully subtle work, done by an actor in full command of everything in her toolbox.
Arthur has one character separated by perhaps seventy years, and with great specificity she invokes both Alidas. We can see the roots of the elderly Alida – an old-school toughie who insists that Beth do her research in the library, not on the Internet – in the young Alida, whose sharply-worded questions make us understand the doomed nature of her mother’s quest for happiness through men, even if the mother does not. Arthur’s astute, knowing portrayal of this brilliant, difficult woman is essential to the play’s success.
As an added bonus, we get superb technical work. Director Laura Keply employs laser-precision timing to heighten tension without ever sacrificing clarity. Robert Klingelhoefer’s set and Colin Bills’ lighting design invoke not only time and place but the play’s moral landscape perfectly. And as for Matthew R. Nielson’s sound – well, to say that this particular sound design is among the Helen Hayes laureate’s best ever is like saying a particular Mike Tyson knockout punch is among his best ever. But there it is: Neilsen’s sound design is a bath of aural pleasure.
Adele’s mystery is revealed to us, but in the end, there is another, deeper mystery which is not. This is the equivalent of being served a lobster by a master chef, and then being given a steak to take home for later. It is an act of creative boldness, to be done only by a playwright in absolute command of her gifts, using artists in absolute command of their own.
By Jennifer Haley
Produced by the Contemporary American Theater Fesstival
Directed by Laura Kepley
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 60 minutes with no intermission