Sunday, September 16, 2018

79 (2018-2019): Review: UNRAVELED (seen September 15, 2018)

"A Stitch in Time"

Jennifer Blackmer’s Unraveled is the latest example of a play depicting the emotional toll taken on loved ones by an aging parent’s dementia or Alzheimer’s. It’s easy to see why so many playwrights find the subject to be a magnet for potential dramatization. And, while I have no idea if it applies to Blackmer, this is often the case when they themselves are faced with the anguish of having to deal with the mental and physical degradation of someone close. Most of us know people in these circumstances. 
Ladonna Burns, Suzanna Hays (foreground); Kittson O'Neill, Lori Hammel (rear). Photo: Michael Kushner.
The experience is so devastating that playwrights confronting it must often feel the need to purge themselves of their pain by sharing it through the medium of drama. As dozens of recent plays reveal, though, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the trauma of real life translates successfully to the drama of the stage (or movies).
Blackmer’s Unraveled, a generally uninvolving, 70-minute one-act at the Clurman, adds little to the growing genre of plays on the subject, a list of whose recent examples may be found at the end of this review. This well-worn tale of a grown child coming to grips with a parent’s decline makes a frail attempt at offering something new by having the child, Joy Gallagher (Kittson O’Neill), be a professor of time and space philosophy. This allows the dramatist to serve up some didactic mumbo jumbo, including talk about time travel and other theoretical scientific concerns.
Lori Hammel, Suzanna Hay. Photo: Michael Kushner.
Blackmer’s focus on the fluidity of time inspires the structural approach of simultaneously depicting Joy and her mother, George, as they were in Joy’s childhood and as they are now, with dialogue intertwined across two time zones. This, of course, is a well-known device, used frequently in films, to heighten the pathos by contrasting a lovely past with an ugly present. Likewise, it permits a person to ruminate through memory on the meanings of their personal history.

Unraveled’s action weaves back and forth in time to show Joy, as a girl and an older woman (both played by O’Neill), interacting with her youthful mother, Young George (Lori Hammel), and her aged one, Old George (Suzanna Hay), both of them sometimes seen at the same time. Old George’s ailment, it might be noted, is the aftereffect of chemotherapy she received following a cancer diagnosis.
Suzanna Hay. Photo: Michael Kushner.
Young George is vibrant, well-dressed, attractive, and preoccupied with her gardening. Old George, 60 but looking 80, and cared for by an unusually eloquent hospice nurse, Anna (Ladonna Burns), races about in a nightshift, her white hair disheveled, her behavior ranging from singing “The Age of Aquarius” to flashing her breasts to raging angrily at the daughter she only sometimes recognizes.

The single other character is Joy’s sketchily depicted T.A., a doctoral student named Michael (Maxwell Eddy), in love with her. He’s also the author of a scientific paper on physical “entanglements” introduced out of nowhere toward the end to hint at the plot’s human entanglements.
Maxwell Eddy, Kittson O'Neill. Photo: Michael Kushner/
Joy, self-involved, struggles to come to terms with her mother’s illness, which is affecting her career as well as her relationship with Michael. She’s unwilling to accept that the fading woman before her is her once vivacious mother, which causes friction with the tolerant but increasingly exasperated Anna, who insists she's there as much to help Old George as the reluctant Joy herself. Eventually, Anna helps Joy find joy by teaching her to knit, a craft with obvious metaphorical overtones here. Joy is thus able to find a pathway to acceptance of her mother's condition although her epiphany seems more contrived than earned, lacking the catharsis it should provide.
Suzanna Hay, Kittson O'Neill. Photo: Michael Kushner.
Melpomone Katakalos provides a spare but pretty unit set incorporating several simultaneously present locales—garden, living room, classroom, office—against a backdrop of wooden latticework and hanging wisteria. Kate McGee lights it nicely, especially when she transforms the floral colors. And Elivia Bovenzi has designed clothing that suits the characters, including an outfit for Anna that incorporates touching memories from her previous patients. However, having Old George dressed throughout like a demented harridan is a bit of overkill.

As directed by Kathryn McMillan, the spectrum of performances goes from the high quality of Burns as the loving, no-nonsense nurse and Hay as the raving Old George to less inspired work from the others, particularly O’Neill’s unconvincing Joy. Absent a strong, deeply felt, multilayered performance in this role, the already frayed fabric of Blackmer’s fragile play can do nothing but unravel.

*The following list offers the titles of newly written dementia/Alzheimer’s-related plays (as opposed to revivals, like Three Tall Women) I reviewed since starting this blog in 2012. (Soon, we can add Broadway's The Waverly Gallery to the list.) The majority are concerned with children grappling with a parents’ illness: The Father, Pocatello, Dot, In My Father’s Words, My Mother Has 4 Noses, It Had to Be You, The Last Seder, Too Much, Too Much, Too Many; The Humans; The Outgoing Tide; Her Requiem; Smokefall; 20th Century Blues; Peace for Mary Frances; Good for Otto; In the Body of the World; Animal; Man from Nebraska; The Mother of Invention; Mr. Toole; Isolde; Hey, Jude; Pat Kirkwood Is Angry; I Forgive You, Ronald Reagan; These Halcyon Days; The Great God Pan; The Other Place; The Last Will; Pressing Matters; Sundown, Yellow Moon; and A Persistent Memory. And, of course, there must be some I missed.


Clurman Theatre
410 W. 42nd St., NYC
Through September 22