Without question, playwright Charlotte Meehan deserves respect for shining a light on the physical, emotional, and financial challenges faced by people who are living with Parkinson’s disease.
According to estimates, they number roughly 1 million in the United States and 10 million around the world, with 60,000 new cases diagnosed every year in the US alone. The value of “Everyday Life and Other Odds and Ends” is that it shows us some of what they and their loved ones go through daily (as the title suggests).
But unfortunately the depth of Meehan’s understanding, empathy, and knowledge doesn’t translate into a dramatically compelling work — at least not consistently enough — in “Everyday Life.”
Three different couples are at the center of this multimedia piece, presented by ArtsEmerson and premiering at the Emerson Paramount Center. Directed by Tara Brooke Watkins, it’s a production by the theater troupe Sleeping Weazel, where Meehan is artistic director.
The couples represent different facets of the larger Parkinson’s battle. There’s Tom (Bruce Kaye), who has stage 3 Parkinson’s disease and is married to Greta (Veronica Anastosio Wiseman). It is Greta who speaks the first words of the play as she jolts awake: “Bad dream!”
There’s Wan (Mal Malme), who has stage 4 Parkinson’s and is in a long-term relationship with Jo Jo (Evelyn Holley). And there’s Lil (Dayenne CB Walters), recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s, who is involved with Mag (Gloria Crist).
The common thread among the couples is love. Movingly, Meehan doesn’t let the audience forget the simple, elemental power of that universal force.
But the play is honest enough to explore the kind of issues that test that love for people with Parkinson’s and their loved ones: a lack of motor control and physical mobility, including falls; constant anxiety, coupled with depression; paranoia; poor judgment; incontinence; money worries and debt; day-to-day friction over matters like taking or not taking pills.
“She’s hard,” Mag says of Lil. “Every day something new. . . . But the worry, I tell you, the worry alone will kill me.” Says Jo Jo to Wan: “I’m a nervous wreck from you.”
There are lighter moments, too, including a charming scene of solidarity among the trio with Parkinson’s, in which Lil, Tom, and Wan band together for an impromptu rendition of the goofball classic “Yes, We Have No Bananas.”
Yet for all of Meehan’s undeniable craft, and for all the heart evident in this play, there’s a built-in problem with dramas about illness and decline that “Everyday Life” does not quite manage to solve: How to avoid stasis?
Moreover, while there are glimpses of their personalities and the pressure points in their relationships, we don’t get a clear enough picture of who the couples are — or, more precisely, who they were, pre-Parkinson’s.
Because our comprehension of what has been lost is limited, so, too, is the extent of our emotional involvement as we watch them struggle, squabble, reconcile, and generally try to figure out ways to get through the present and prepare for an uncertain future.
With such complex and wrenching territory to navigate, it was a miscalculation to overload the play by incorporating two “echo movers” (Christina R. Chan and Emily Crosta) who weave wordlessly within and around the action. Their movements and gestures — now flowing, now hobbled and cramped — are presumably meant to represent the fugitive dream of physical freedom and the Parkinson’s reality of physical constraints. But overall the dancers distract more than illuminate.
Ditto for the actors who play such figures as a therapist, a bankruptcy attorney, a Parkinson’s counselor, and a physician, and who interact with the couples in video exchanges.
Meehan used video to great effect in “The Audacity: Women Speak,” her powerful 2019 documentary-style play about gender bias and sexual harassment and assault. In “Everyday Life,” however, the screen-to-stage interpolations come across as stilted, disrupting the production’s flow.
While “The Audacity” successfully merged an even larger multiplicity of voices into a unified message and story, “Everyday Life” would have benefited from a tighter focus.
Yet there are notes in this play that reverberate, strongly and stirringly. Meehan knows this subject very well: Her late husband, Steven Bell, had Parkinson’s for a decade-plus before his death in 2020. As observed above, “Everyday Life” begins with two unsettling words. It ends with two very different words, repeated in a refrain by several characters, and those words beautifully distill into one affirmative message all that Parkinson’s cannot take away.
EVERYDAY LIFE AND OTHER ODDS AND ENDS
Play by Charlotte Meehan. Directed by Tara Brooke Watkins. Choreography by Peter DiMuro. Video design by Lee Francois. Production by Sleeping Weazel. Presented by ArtsEmerson. At Jackie Liebergott Black Box, Emerson Paramount Center. Through March 27. Virtual stream available April 1-10. Tickets for in-person performances and for the virtual stream at 617-824-8400, www.ArtsEmerson.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.