What is it about Alzheimer’s that beckons like catnip to aspiring playwrights? It’s easy enough to understand the appeal for the writer — in the case of “Absence,” Peter M. Floyd, who developed this full-length work (his first) while still a grad student in Boston University’s playwriting program. Take on a faltering mind and you get to toy with memory — the very meat of drama — and the deterioration or absence thereof. But for the audience, a good portion of whom may themselves be staring down the prospect of senility, it’s not exactly a picnic.
Seventy-six-year-old Helen (Joanna Merlin), the central character in “Absence,” starts out just a few synapses over the line: She’s forgetting things, repeating herself. In a fairly typical threshold to full crisis mode, she wanders off, gets lost, and panics.
It’s not quite clear, as the play progresses, whether we’re seeing Helen’s interactions with her husband (Dale Place) and daughter (Anne Gottlieb) in “real” time or telescoping retrospect. Floyd plays fast and loose with tense, to interesting effect.
What wears, though, is the fact that Helen is such a thoroughly unappealing character. In a program note, Floyd reports that in early rewrites he strove to up the conflict by giving Helen “more of an edge.” That she’s got, in spades: She’s caustic and bossy, often downright nasty. She starts off by cutting her spouse down to size with the observation that “I’ve been the strong one in this marriage. . . . And you resent that.” She also makes no secret of her disappointment in her adult daughter, Barb (the name does double duty), whom Helen accuses of squandering her potential — specifically, in ditching Georgetown law school in favor of marriage and motherhood.
The product of that union, teenage Samantha (Beverly Diaz), is just now starting to give her mother the kind of agita to which Barb once subjected Helen. Does this turn of events strike you as just a bit formulaic? It is. Very little of interest occurs until the dialogue starts going off the rails.
It’s puzzling when the first few out-of-place words start popping up: when, for instance, Helen’s husband observes, “You were gone a little rabbit than usual.” For a moment you might wonder whether you’ve misheard, but no, you’re just beginning to tune in to Helen’s sensory intake, where gibberish — garbage in, in computer-speak — starts as a trickle and soon becomes a torrent. (Oddly, her own utterances remain cogent.)
These divergent vectors — sense vs. sentiment — make for some interesting acting challenges. Gottlieb pulls off an absolutely devastating scene as Barb reacts to her mother’s belated apology for not being the most supportive of parents. True to form, Helen can’t resist the urge to tack on an undermining coda: “You seemed intent on ignoring your own gifts.”
Barb goes ballistic, spewing nonsensical double-talk. It’s a knockout of a scene, which Gottlieb performs to perfection. Whatever verbiage may be flying about, there’s no mistaking exactly what Barb is trying to convey.
The script sports some other furbelows that don’t work so well — specifically, the introduction of a fantasy character, one Dr. Bright (Bill Mootos), who serves as Helen’s delusion-buddy. Patently not real, he’s a kind of Loki, a trickster figure, with a much more portentous role — you’re sure to see it coming — that emerges toward play’s end.
Merlin does a yeoman’s job in trying to keep us invested in Helen’s ultimate fate, but Helen’s flagrant character flaws, unmitigated by any redeeming qualities, don’t engender much compassion. It’s Barb, as a representative of the hard-pressed sandwich generation, who elicits real sympathy. How, one wonders, will she handle her own inevitable march toward death?