Feeling the chill of Alzheimer’s in New Rep’s ‘Blackberry Winter'
WATERTOWN — The unshowy virtuosity of Boston actress Adrianne Krstansky makes an evening in her company something to look forward to, even when — make that especially when — the subject matter is bleak.
It doesn’t get much bleaker than Alzheimer’s disease, an ongoing tragedy of our times that lies at the heart of Steve Yockey’s “Blackberry Winter,’’ a fine new drama directed by the sure-handed Bridget Kathleen O’Leary at New Repertory Theatre.
Krstansky plays Vivienne, a 40-something baker whose mother is steadily being enveloped by the fog of Alzheimer’s. As is often the case with this superb actress, a quality of empathy coupled with a certain wry self-awareness runs through her portrayal. Vivienne seems to perpetually measure the depth of her own inner resources as she struggles with the implications of her mother’s disease, now advanced enough that she needs to be moved from an assisted-living facility to a nursing home.
That struggle will be familiar to plenty of baby boomers who are acting as caregivers for their elderly parents at a time when life expectancy has increased but many of those lives have been darkened by Alzheimer’s. “There’s this managerial groove that you have to get into, basically orchestrating everything,’’ Vivienne explains. “Somebody has to be in charge of this sinking ship. Because the ship is sinking.’’
It’s very moving to watch Vivienne fight to keep from being capsized herself. “Blackberry Winter’’ is neither cloying nor grandiose for the most part, though Vivienne’s use of the word “cosmogony’’ resounds with the tinny clank of a playwright trying too hard, given that Vivienne emphasizes she is “not a writer.’’ Speaking in a slight Southern accent, Krstansky’s Vivienne addresses the audience throughout the 90-minute New Rep production, establishing an air of confiding intimacy, demonstrating resiliency and a sense of humor, admitting at one point to thinking the unthinkable with regard to her mother.
Even when a fanciful element is introduced that initially seems dubious — Vivienne’s origin myth about where Alzheimer’s came from, involving shadow puppetry and woodland creatures — the production mostly keeps its balance. Paula Langton and Ken Cheeseman, who teamed up memorably a few seasons back in New Rep’s production of Stephen Sachs’s “Bakersfield Mist,’’ portray the White Egret, who collects the memories of animals, and the Gray Mole, who unwittingly brings about catastrophe.
The puppets were designed by Matthew T. Lazure, who also created the altar-like set, consisting of faux-mahogany platforms on which stand pedestals that hold various items: an iron, a pair of scissors, a box of photos, a silver piggy bank into which Vivienne deposits a coin each time she swears, which happens more frequently as her stress level mounts.
When it comes to crafting portraits of the Everywoman-in-extremis, Krstansky has few peers. The actress has a way of getting under the skin of women who are managing, just barely, to keep sadness or confusion from overwhelming them, whether it’s Lola Delaney coping with midlife regret and an alcoholic husband in David Cromer’s production of William Inge’s “Come Back, Little Sheba’’ at Huntington Theatre Company; Ada, the youngest of three Irish sisters in Enda Walsh’s “The New Electric Ballroom’’ at Gloucester Stage, wondering whether she dares to take a chance on the local fishmonger; or Virginia, the bewildered widow in Jeffrey Hatcher’s “Three Viewings’’ at New Rep, reeling from the discovery that her late husband left her a mountain of debt.
Playwright Yockey gets a lot right in “Blackberry Winter’’ about the ripple effects of Alzheimer’s, dramatizing, for instance, the physical and emotional exhaustion that becomes the new normal for caregivers. Contrasting her mother’s ordeal with her husband’s father, who was still “all there’’ when he died at 91, Vivienne asks “why some people get to experience this without all the hurdles, the memory loss and dementia. . . . So why this morass for my mom?’’ The question is unanswerable, of course, and Vivienne sometimes sags beneath its weight, but she does not seem inclined to give in to despair.
In recent years, dramatists and filmmakers have sought to explore the dilemma of dementia. Movies like “Still Alice’’ (starring Julianne Moore), “Away From Her’’ (featuring Julie Christie), and “The Iron Lady’’ (starring Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher) have focused on protagonists who are battling Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. Plays on the subject occupy a wide range: “Absence,’’ by Boston playwright Peter M. Floyd; “The Other Place,’’ by Sharr White; “The Outgoing Tide,’’ by Bruce Graham; “Not Constantinople,’’ by Arnie Reisman; and “Visitors,’’ by Barney Norris, just to name a few.
The compassionate and insightful “Blackberry Winter’’ represents a valuable addition to that lineup.
Play by Steve Yockey. Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary. Presented by New Repertory Theatre. At Charles Mosesian Theater, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through April 17. Tickets: $30-$59, 617-923-8487, www.newrep.org