Review: “Still Alice”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Lookingglass Theatre Company, Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave.
When: through May 19
Tickets: $36-$70
Phone: 312-337-0665

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

If you think a play about a woman with early onset Alzheimer’s disease is going to be sad and depressing, you’d be right. But Lookingglass Theatre Company’s “Still Alice” is so much more than that.

Directed by ensemble member Christine Mary Dunford and adapted by her from the novel by Lisa Genova, the show takes an unsentimental, compassionate and sometimes humorous look at the progression of the disease from the perspective both of the person experiencing the slow loss of memory and identity and of the family members who must adjust. It also advocates more support programs for people with Alzheimer’s and related disorders, which probably stems from Dunford’s work with The Memory Ensemble, an improvisational theater intervention developed by The Northwestern Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center and Lookingglass.

Dunford’s device for getting inside the head of her main character is to divide her in two: Alice Howland (Eva Barr), the brilliant professor who studies the brain until she finds her own failing, and Herself (Mariann Mayberry), the alter ego/inner being with whom she carries on conversations, charts her decline, shares her fears and frustrations and finds comfort. The concept is fruitful because the personalities are different yet similar. Barr, with a high forehead and creviced face that resembles Roman masks of comedy and tragedy, projects a no-nonsense, rather chilly rationality, while Mayberry radiates warmth and concern.

There are some baffling inconsistencies, however. At times, Herself is an omniscient narrator who retains all the mental faculties that Alice is losing and even does the housekeeping (literal and figurative), but then, all of a sudden, she’ll seem to be suffering the same confusion, disorientation and memory problems as her other self. This is disconcerting and doesn’t serve the piece especially well.

Alice’s shifting relationships with her husband and grown-up children are as compelling as her inner struggle. Thanks to Christopher Donahue’s beautifully nuanced performance, we see husband John, also a professor, basically experience many stages of grief, beginning with denial, as he grapples with the competing demands of caring for Alice and attending to his career, so he won’t be left with nothing when she’s gone.

Son Thomas (Cliff Chamberlain), who was very close with this mother before the onset of her disease, has the most trouble coping with the ever-changing reality. He can’t accept that Alice isn’t what she was, and it makes him angry at her and himself. Daughter Lydia (Joanne Dubach), on the other hand, seems to “get it.” Her interaction with her judgmental pre-Alzheimer’s mother consisted mostly of arguments about her lifestyle, but the new Alice barely recognizes her daughter and finds it easy to regard her as a separate, adult human being.

These distinctions are a little simplistic but nonetheless effective on stage. What we don’t see quite enough of, however, is what Alice and her world were like before she started having symptoms. If we got a fuller picture of her normal life, I think the play would be more powerful. As it is, there’s a certain repetitiousness, to the early scenes especially.

Dunford and scenic designer John Musial have come up with a simple yet striking visual metaphor for the evening. As Alice loses her self little by little, the kitchen fixtures and furnishings of her home disappear one by one, rolled offstage mostly by Herself. Mike Tutaj’s projections on the floor and back wall contribute to our understanding of her mental state. Alison Siple’s costumes are mostly a propos, but some items in Alice’s wardrobe, presumably acquired before her disease, seem singularly ill-suited to her age and position. Mike Durst’s lighting and Rick Sims’ sound design and music help set the tone for an illuminating and thought-provoking evening.