Actor Holly Twyford is a tour de force as Vivienne, a force of nature with a soft Southern accent, mad baking skills, impeccable manners and oh yes, a mother with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
The crux of Blackberry Winter, Steve Yockey’s earnest drama about caregiving and guilt, is mother Rosemary, whose disease has progressed to the point where she needs to move from assisted living to a nursing home. Vivienne, as the self-anointed “proactive family care manager,” must make this decision for her mother—as she does for everything these days—and the play depicts her turbulent feelings, gallows humor and various theories about the nature and accreted devastation of Alzheimer’s.
In a series of monologues, Vivienne takes us through her thoughts (sometimes dangerously dark) and coping mechanisms as she prepares to take this next step with and for her mother. Twyford has the audience in Vivienne’s well-manicured hand the moment she strides onto Debra Kim Sivigny’s simple, evocative set, a series of wooden pedestals of varying heights that hold various totemic objects—piggy bank, scissors, a trowel, pen, recipe box.
Her endearing and empathetic portrayal of Vivienne has just the right tang of self-awareness and wit so that she’s not saintly or a victim like something out of a Lifetime movie. Her Vivienne is flawed, grieving and devoid of answers—but she’s still standing and for that reason alone you love her.
And if there’s anyone who needs a pat on the hand and a nice cup of tea, it’s Vivienne. A sensible suburban wife and mother, she runs a home bakery business and now finds herself sleepless in the South, funneling her stress into insomniac baking shifts. The result may be a feather-light, 3-layer coconut cake (she includes the recipe) but Vivienne wonders just how long she can keep up the 36-hour day.
closes June 11, 2016
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Of course, she keeps insisting that it is not about her, but about her mother’s care and trying to maintain dignity for as long as possible. All very altruistic, but Blackberry Winter is most affecting when it centers on what it’s like when the child becomes the parent—that curious and all-too common state of being for baby boomers who find themselves bathing, prompting, bankrolling and otherwise caring for parents as if they are their children, all the while trying to hang on to some vestige of the former relationship as Mom or Dad.
Rosemary is Vivienne’s baby, but she’s also her mother. And that paradox is perhaps the most painful of all for Vivienne to face.
For the most part, Yockey gets the details right for elder caregiving. Anyone who has been there will chuckle ruefully when Vivienne speaks of her and her sister “taking shifts to fall apart” and her descriptions of the impersonal aspects of assisted living facilities and corporate insensitivity. The crazy shifts between guilt, resentment and just feeling overwhelmed and powerless also resonate.
Twyford’s relaxed command of her character also helps you through the script’s more twee moments, such as the swear jar she uses every time Vivienne curses, along with some sidebars about the ubiquitousness of scarves and hunting for truffles in the woods.
Even Twyford’s formidable acting chops cannot entirely make up for the fanciful “creation myth” Vivienne cooks up to enable her to find the meaning behind Alzheimer’s. Using whimsical animated projections of woodland creatures and the charms of actors Ahmad Kamal and Sara Dabney Tisdale, Vivienne’s creation myth is a treacly mix of storybook rhymes, repetition and awkward allegory. Vivienne is better sticking to baking.
The playwright also has her telegraphing and softening the audience before delivering any bad news or untoward emotions. Perhaps this is supposed to be a quirk of Vivienne’s personality and her good manners, but it comes off as if the playwright does not trust the audience with the unvarnished truth.
Uncomfortable as it is to cope with a parent’s decline, I would like to believe that the audience is not only ready for the realities and revelations of a play like Blackberry Winter, but also willing to welcome Vivienne and all the other hot-mess caretakers out there into our hearts.
Blackberry Winter by Steve Yockey . Directed by Michael Dove . Featuring Holly Twyford, Ahmad Kamal, Sara Dabney Tisdale . Set, Costumes, Props Designer: Debra Kim Sivigny . Lighting Designer: John D. Alexander . Sound Designer: Thomas Sowers . Projections Designer: Patrick Lord . Dramaturg: Otis Ramsey-Zoe. Stage Manager: Hannah Martin . A National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere, produced by Forum Theatre . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.