Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Bay City Players' "Moonglow" puts humor into the Alzheimer's situation

Debbie Lake, Debra Monroe, Margaret Bird, Leeds Bird

review by janet i. martineau/photos by kunio ouellette

A comedy....about Alzheimer’s....one in which gales of laughter sweep the theater at the Bay City Players.

Who would have ever guessed.

And that it was penned by Michigan playwright/Wayne State graduate Kim Carney, with plenty of Mitten State references, adds to the fun.

Yes, fun, about Alzheimer’s.

We’re talking about “Moonglow,” which opened this past weekend and continues this coming weekend.

Thanks to its script and its stupendous casting in Bay City, this is a don’t miss production that is respectful both of the disease and old age, that will at the end leave you in tears after all that laughter (especially if you are still trying to cope with your own mother’s death even if she did not die from dementia), and that will make you realize we’re all in this together as it captures in sight and words the aging process that will claim us all. (We suspect the older you are, the funnier this show is because, well, you see yourself). 

What is best about it, however, is the casting -- some of the area’s top notch actors -- and its strong direction by Tina Sills.

Leeds and Margaret Bird, a real-life married couple “up there” in years, are cast as two residents of an Alzheimer’s care facility. Debbie Lake of Saginaw is the anxiety-ridden daughter who has just placed her reluctant and angry mother (Margaret Bird) in that facility. Kurt Miller is the son the Leeds Bird character no longer recognizes. Debra Monroe is the head caretaker at the facility -- routinely caught between the patients and their overbearing children.

Kate Sarafolean, Dave Newsham
And in the play’s trickiest casting are Dave Newsham and Kate Sarafolean as the Alzheimer’s duo in the 1940s, when they were young. Sometimes all four share the stage, shadow or mirror each others movements, speak in tandem. Other times they drift on and off like ghosts. In the final scene...well....we’ll we don’t want to spoil its discovery but in the final scene one of them talks from beyond this world as her body lies before us.

It is tricky writing, tricky casting and tricky direction to carry it off. If there is one issue it is that the younger couple in no way resemble the older couple in terms of height. But that is a minor moot point.

This younger pair also, whether this is intentional or not, create a little confusion in our minds now and then....confusion on who is who that Alzheimer’s patients suffer.

Leeds Bird is the powerhouse of the acting ensemble. Every fiber of his being is a confused old man -- the way his face contorts, picking at his arms, shuffling in his gait, trying to make a craft as the old lady bosses his every move until he erupts, confident still in his dance skills.

Lake too delivers a moving performance as a daughter trying to convince her mother this care facility is the right move, reacting with total astonishment and delight when something kinda warm and fuzzy happens, refusing to acknowledge the reality of Alzheimer’s, and that killer scene at the end.

But Margaret Bird, Monroe and Miller are right in lock step too with their characterizations. What is fascinating is the show also gently but effectively deals with the plight of adult children coming to terms with parents who have Alzheimer’s and some of the issues care facility staff have to deal with.

The play spans the course of one year (1997, the year the playwright’s mother died of Alzheimer’s) at that facility, its one-scene set (designed by Leeds Bird) effectively used in allowing the motion to continue uninterrupted by set changes.

So many many of the Alzheimer’s-related movies we have seen have been total downers. “Moonglow” offers another viewpoint to consider, one that is compassionate yes but also finds a way to add humor to its complexities.

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