New Belfry play delves into tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease

jill_daum-1Playwright Jill Daum

 

Forget About Tomorrow

Belfry Theatre

To Feb. 18

Rating: ✶✶✶ (out of five)

By Adrian Chamberlain

Vancouver playwright/actress  Jill Daum attempts something very brave with her new play, Forget About Tomorrow. The production, which just opened at the Belfry Theatre, is something of a mixed success. However, Daum does tackle  her subject with fierceness, integrity and humour.

This 135-minute drama with comic touches is inspired by her husband’s battle with early onset Alzheimer’s disease.  The tragedy made headlines because John Mann is a noted figure in Canadian music; he was the vocalist for Celtic-pop band Spirit of The West. For fans, Mann’s diagnosis was especially heartbreaking given he was a particularly dynamic and charismatic performer.

Although it contains several songs written by Mann, Forget About Tomorrow  is not a autobiographical work. It tells the fictional tale of Tom (Craig Erickson), a therapist in his early 50s who learns the new fogginess in his brain is Alzheimer’s disease. He says: “It’s like a white wall, an empty white wall.”

Naturally  Tom  and his wife Jane (played by the worthwhile Jennifer Lines) are devastated by the news. Their 27-year relationship is a loving one, yet cracks soon begin to show. Before the diagnosis is made, Jane — a cashier at a baby clothing store  —  is irritated by Tom’s complains of brain fog, She wonders aloud if he’s merely being neurotic or wallowing self-indulgently through a depressive phase.

Alzheimer’s disease is the ever-present elephant in the room – a silent character (almost like a horror film monster) that overwhelms everyone and everything. As such, Forget About Tomorrow is essentially a reactive play. The strengths and weaknesses of all characters are revealed in how they cope – or fail to cope – with a vicious illness that  robs victims of their personalities and memories. It’s powerful — and at the time, casting a terminal disease as the villain gives the show a curiously static character..

One of the play’s best sequences is when Tom reveals his diagnosis to his college-aged son Aaron (Aren Okemaysim) via Skype. Here the writing is admirably spare and unsentimental. On Thursday night both Erickson and Okemaysim embraced an understated delivery that made the scene the most  effective and moving of the night (the woman next to me was in tears).

A solid actor, Erickson isn’t given a great deal to work with. Tom’s illness may be the catalyst for everything that happens, but his reactive character is somewhat two-dimensional. Playwright Daum places the greatest focus on Jane,  played by Lines with  charismatic warmth, grace and humanity.

Jane’s boss Lori (Colleen Wheeler) is a  horny, wise-cracking, almost Falstaffian figure providing comic relief. In order to leaven the seriousness of the subject matter, there’s plenty of humour throughout the show. The opening night audience laughed often; I found the comedy rather broad and slightly distancing. It’s a style of sit-com humour  seen in the Mom’s the Word series of plays (Daum is a co-creator of these ). Sample dialogue: “Do you travel much?” “I went to London Drugs last week.” (One tasteless sacrilegious joke strives for edginess but lands with  terrible thump.)

Another weak spot is Jane’s would-be suitor. The character  of Wayne intended to be sexy and alluring, yet  Hrothgar Mathews is a balding and nebbish-looking . A crucial scene between Jane and Wayne  – which cannot be revealed here – is  unconvincing and in  need of a rewrite.

Forget about Tomorrow benefits greatly from Pam Johnson’s bold set, dominated by a giant set of cupboards  and a blond wood floor. The wall of cupboards is a backdrop against which Skype conversations and videos are projected – these technically tricky touches are cleverly navigated by director Michael Shamata.

Daum is an intelligent writer who knows what ingredients must go into such a play.  Jane’s failings are unflinchingly investigated; the dreariness of the tragedy is goosed with comedy; the portrayal of  Alzheimer’s has a tang of authenticity. Yet ultimately there’s a sense Forget About Tomorrow doesn’t fully transcend the nuts and bolts of the story line. Certainly such tragedies are terrible and arbitrary, yet at some level, we need to learn more what they say about the human condition.

***

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