Krstansky Shines in ‘Blackberry Winter’ (4.5 Stars)

By Mike Hoban


‘Blackberry Winter’ – Written by Steve Yockey; Directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary; Scenic Design by Matthew Lazure; Costume Design by Rebecca Saenz; Lighting Design by Christopher Brusberg; Sound Design by David Reiffel. Presented by New Repertory Theatre at the Charles Mosesian Theater, 321 Arsenal St., Watertown through April 17th

 


Life Isn’t Fair.


But it’s how we choose to deal with that unpleasant reality that makes our lives either bearable or filled with anguish. Blackberry Winter, now playing at the New Rep in Watertown as part of a “rolling world premiere”, is a story about a woman trying to come to grips with the progression of her elderly mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. It’s a painful (but often funny) study of how failing to accept the inevitable can keep us in anguish. But if this sounds like a depressing evening of theater, fear not, it is anything but. Like last season’s outstanding production of The Outgoing Tide at the Merrimack Repertory Theater, there are a lot of laughs to be mined from this subject - not from the disease or those afflicted with it, but from our all-too-human reactions to it.


Vivienne (Adrianne Krstansky) has just received a letter from her mother’s senior living facility, and is hesitant to open it. She suspects it is the official announcement that her mother’s Alzheimer’s has advanced to the stage where she can no longer be adequately cared for at the assisted living unit, which means she’ll need to be transferred to a “memory care” wing, the final earthly destination for those afflicted with the disease.  The move will cost her family additional money, but that’s not the issue. The letter also serves as a stark reminder that her mother is never going to get any better, a bitter pill that Vivienne is not quite ready to swallow.


Blackberry Winter is essentially a one-woman play, with the actress speaking directly to the audience about her trials and tribulations in dealing with her mother’s long, slow demise. We learn that she devours all the information she can find on the subject of Alzheimer’s from medical texts to Hallmark movies in her search for the answers that will ultimately provide no comfort. She tells us of her anxiety and insomnia, and how she adopts late night baking as a diversion, much to her husband’s bewilderment. The stress and strain of the caretaking combined with the fear of the unknown begin to take their toll, so much so that her otherwise patient husband, unable to handle her unrelenting worry on a long car ride, just pulls over and sternly tells her, “Vivienne, your Mom is going to die, but you have got to find a way to keep living!”


The playwright is obviously no stranger to the disease himself, as he covers the broad range of emotions and stages of anger and grief that family members go through, but this gifted writer finds a wealth of humor in the pain. Vivienne, a bright and educated Southern woman, follows a family tradition of setting up a “swear jar” in her living room, so that when she drops an F-bomb, she needs to drop a quarter in the jar. After a series of such F-bombs and subsequent deposits, she just brings a fistful of quarters over to the jar, and after cursing through her frustrations and paying up, she turns calmly to the audience and sweetly admits, “The swear jar is more of tax on my language than a deterrent to my predilection for swearing.” Comic gems like that are sprinkled throughout the play and keep the otherwise painful material from becoming maudlin.


As Vivienne, Krstansky delivers yet another terrific performance (she was particularly awe-inspiring as Lola in the Huntington’s Come Back Little Sheba last year), and we watch her grow from snarky to seething to explosively angry before gaining at least some small degree of acceptance throughout the 85 minute performance. She is joined onstage by Boston favorites Paula Langton and Ken Cheeseman as an anthropomorphic White Egret and Grey Mole in the telling of a fable that – despite Langton and Cheeseman’s best efforts (and some interesting puppetry and projection design) does little to enhance the story. But the sideshow also does little to detract from the main narrative, which Krstansky powerfully delivers. Considering that one in nine people over the age of 65 have dementia or Alzheimer’s, there should be much for people to relate to in this production, but even if you can't relate, this is a production well worth seeing. For more information, go to: http://www.newrep.org/productions/blackberry-winter/