Anyone who has watched a loved one develop Alzheimer’s disease will recognize the inexorable, step-by-step decline of a woman named Helen in “Absence,’’ a wrenching drama by Brighton playwright Peter M. Floyd.
Helen, who is in her mid-70s, gets lost while out on a walk. She forgets her own age. Twice within the span of five minutes she tells the same story about her father returning from World War II. She conflates her sister with her daughter while telling a tale of the former’s biker boyfriend. As Helen’s condition worsens, the words spoken to her by others register in a bizarre jumble, as when she hears her husband say, “It’s not that the rabbits aren’t indexing the volt . . .’’
Having often been severe and disapproving to her daughter, Helen seizes one final chance to apologize for her “deficiencies, as a mother,’’ adding: “I wanted to tell you all this while — while I still could.’’ The daughter responds with an outpouring of long-bottled-up feelings that ultimately give way to an expression of acceptance and love.
Floyd’s play, which debuted last year at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, reflects the emergence of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia as topics of drama on area stages, part of a wider cultural reckoning — films, books, TV shows — with memory-stealing brain disorders whose impact is being felt in more and more homes.
Utilizing the communal space of theater to put a public face on private anguish, local productions of works like “Absence,’’ Bruce Graham’s “The Outgoing Tide,’’ and Sharr White’s “The Other Place’’ have added a new branch to that sturdiest of all theatrical genres, the family drama.
“For me it was pretty personal,’’ says Floyd, 49. “My mother had been suffering from dementia for many years. My play was a way to try to understand what she was going through. I wanted to construct a first-person view of what experiencing that kind of disease must be like. When your memories, your thoughts, what you are, are taken from you, what is left? What is you?’’
Personal experience is also part of the equation for MJ Bruder Munafo, artistic and executive director of Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, where two of this season’s five major productions — Arnie Reisman’s “Not Constantinople’’ and Barney Norris’s “Visitors’’ — revolve around protagonists with Alzheimer’s.
Munafo opted to direct “Not Constantinople’’ herself partly because “I had been through it,’’ her mother having had dementia before dying two years ago. The director’s experiences with her mother informed her staging of Reisman’s play, which is being performed through Saturday. The audiences for “Not Constantinople’’ have included numerous people who are dealing with Alzheimer’s and their family members, according to Munafo, who says plays about dementia and Alzheimer’s speak to theatergoers because they communicate “the idea that we’re so fallible as human beings.’’
“Dementia is affecting so many families,’’ she adds. “There’s so many stories. It does seem to be coming out in the dramatic literature.’’
Indeed, perhaps not since the AIDS epidemic emerged more than three decades ago — leading to works like Larry Kramer’s “The Normal Heart’’ and Tony Kushner’s epic “Angels in America’’ — has a health issue attracted such concentrated attention from playwrights and scriptwriters. Films dealing with Alzheimer’s have included “Still Alice,’’ starring Julianne Moore; “Away From Her,’’ with Julie Christie; “The Iron Lady,’’ starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher; “The Notebook,’’ with Gena Rowlands; and “Iris,’’ with Judi Dench as the writer Iris Murdoch in her later years.
On ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy,’’ Kate Burton portrayed Dr. Ellis Grey — the mother of the show’s title character, Dr. Meredith Grey — who had early-onset Alzheimer’s. (When it came to wrestling with the topic of Alzheimer’s, TV got there early: As far back as 1985, CBS broadcast “Do You Remember Love,’’ starring Joanne Woodward as a college professor stricken by the disease.)
Next March, New Repertory Theatre in Watertown will present “Blackberry Winter,’’ a new play by Steve Yockey about a woman, played by Adrianne Krstansky, absorbing the emotional impact of her mother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis as she tries to work through logistical questions about caregiving.
The grim reality is that these dramas mirror the situation inside an increasing number of homes. Alzheimer’s, a progressive and incurable disease that is characterized by the degeneration and death of brain cells, currently afflicts more than 5 million people — a number projected to triple by the year 2050, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Alzheimer’s is the most common kind of dementia. Dementia is not a single disease but rather a set of symptoms that include memory loss, impaired thinking skills, diminished judgment and language, and an increasing inability to perform the functions of daily life.
Given that Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia envelop their victims in a mental fog, it’s striking that “Absence’’ and other dramas depict it as a force for a certain kind of clarity, as the ailing protagonists strive for reconciliation with estranged family members. That impulse is crystallized in a line from “Visitors,’’ which will run Sept. 18-Oct. 10 at Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, by an Alzheimer’s-afflicted woman who says to her son: “What if I died, and I still haven’t managed to have even one conversation with you.’’
Part of the value of these plays is that they starkly dramatize the confusion, fear, and terrible solitude that sufferers must endure. The impact on their families is also a constant theme: that complicated mixture of sadness, frustration, exhaustion, and grief for a loved one who is both present and absent.
Yet the characters with Alzheimer’s or dementia in these dramas are not inert. They do what they can to heal old wounds with the time and faculties they have left, embracing action as a way to resolve unfinished personal business. As symptoms multiply and their powers wane, their emphasis is on making things right, leaving nothing unsaid, and maybe, in the process, figuring out what their lives have really added up to in the end.
In “The Outgoing Tide,’’ which was presented recently at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, a man in his early 70s named Gunner, newly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and wanting no part of a nursing home, concocts an elaborate scheme to stage his own death in a way that will result in a life-insurance windfall for Jack, the 49-year-old son on whom Gunner had been pretty tough during childhood. “You take that money, you hear me?’’ Gunner tells Jack, “and you do whatever the hell you want with it. Maybe it’ll . . . make up for some stuff.’’
The fragility and inner workings of the human mind have been a frequent theme onstage in recent years. In Richard Nelson’s poignant 2011 drama “Sweet and Sad,’’ now receiving an excellent production at Gloucester Stage Company that runs through Saturday, an aging actor struggles with severe amnesia, developed after he suffered a serious heart attack. In “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,’’ which won best play at the Tony Awards two weeks ago, a brilliant teenager who apparently has Asperger syndrome is buffeted from within and without as he’s flooded with revelations about his dysfunctional family. In the 2009 musical “Next to Normal,’’ a woman, her husband, and her daughter struggle with the fallout from her bipolar disorder.
But dramatists, perhaps desiring to capture the final chapter of one generation while anticipating a future chapter of their own, seem to feel a particular urgency at the moment to explore the murky terrain of Alzheimer’s and dementia. It’s worth noting that what they discover there, while definitely unsettling, is not unremittingly bleak.
Floyd, whose “Absence’’ is going to be produced this fall at a theater in Oslo, Norway, says that although his mother was a very different person from Helen, her overall journey through Alzheimer’s inspired scenes like the one of Helen’s last-ditch bid for reconciliation with her daughter. “In a weird way, I had never seen her happier than in the last few years of her life,’’ says the playwright. “Though the disease took away a part of her, it also took away her cares, her worries, her sadnesses. It kind of freed her in a bizarre way. I was trying to show, with Helen, that as agonizing as it was, there was something releasing about it.’’Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.