Friday, April 12, 2013

Broken Chord Weaves Stories and Memories Into Unbroken Triumph

By James E. Trainor III

Photos By Jennifer Fawcett

Saffron Henke as Helen
Iowa City - 5.4 million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Upon diagnosis, a person could have anywhere from eight to twenty years to live. The disease involves an irreversible deterioration of neural connections and cognitive abilities, and eventually requires full-time care. In an aging nation with rising medical costs, this is a problem that isn't going away anytime soon. So it's timely that Working Group Theatre has put its full creative forces towards putting this issue onstage in The Broken Chord.

Penned by Jennifer Fawcett, The Broken Chord is two things at once: as far as the main plot is concerned, it's a drama about two siblings coping with their mother's illness. As a drama, it's well-paced, extremely well-acted, and the design draws on some gorgeous visual ideas. The script is tight and the conflict between the characters suggests a lot of important questions about how best to care for someone with dementia. In between the more traditional scenes, other stories are told: ensemble members come onstage and tell snippets of their stories in the sort of choral monologuing that was so effective in WGT's other interview-based documentary shows Mayberry and Rust.

When it's all put together, it's an engaging personal story, and also a series of big questions: are we prepared to deal with this staggering number of Alzhemier's sufferers (16 million by 2050 according to current trends)? What is the best way to honor their wishes and treat them with dignity as they slowly lose the most basic of life skills? And perhaps most centrally, is someone who can no longer remember her past or express herself verbally still the same person? Is the self lost when cognition is lost? Or can it be found again in a favorite memory?

Saffron Henke is Helen, an archivist who, in a stroke of terrible irony, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. She an intelligent and fiercely driven women, determined to stop -- or at least slow down -- the process of forgetting.

"I am an archivist," she tells us. "A preserver of memory. The records of our lives tell a story. It's important to tell the whole story: beginning, middle, and end."

Martin Andrews and Elizabeth June Bergman
Helen's story is being told out of order: we start at the end, but through the magic of theatre we see the glimpses of the beginning and middle. She tells us a story of her younger days: an unexpected snowfall when she danced with her husband. It's her favorite memory, the one she would preserve if she can pick just one. Martin Andrews and Elizabeth June Bergman come on stage as the young Helen and her husband and dance very expressively. This image returns throughout the story, but it's never quite as bright and clear: instead it's something Helen is struggling to hold onto as her mind fails her. Other memories intervene: memories of her children, past mistakes, guilt that can never truly be resolved. But the romantic image, faded as it is, keeps returning to the stage, and through the choreography and lighting design we can see the horrible progress of the disease. Using the ensemble to represent Helen's memories is a very effective choice, as we can see very clearly what's being lost. We also get the sense of being inside Helen's head, as she loses her verbal abilities and struggles to communicate what she's experiencing to her children.

Her children -- Jacob (Tim Budd) and Amy (Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers) -- have their own very emotional journeys, mainly revolving around the burden of caring for their mother. Jacob has been distant, not seen his mother in years, only called; she wrote, he never wrote back. He has to make up for it somehow; and now that he's unemployed, he can. He devotes himself full-time to caring for her -- a job that is a lot more difficult than he realizes.

"It's like living with a child, only in reverse," he tells his sister. "She keeps being able to do less."

Amy has a job -- she's a teacher who is taking on more and more responsibility -- but she can't let go of her mother and embark on her career with so much uncertainty as to the future. She doesn't have confidence in Jacob and thinks Helen should be in a home. She pleads with the doctor for some definite answer about what will happen next. She finds herself, like Helen, grasping at the past, wishing hopelessly for her strong-willed, competent mother back. Jacob tries to come to terms, help her appreciate these final years, but Amy has trouble getting past the horror of what is happening.

"My mother taught me to read when I was four years old... books were all we talked about," she tells the doctor. "Her being unable to read, that doesn't make any sense.

This is a fascinating dynamic because there are no simple answers, no good guys and bad guys, only two siblings trying to do their best despite the emotional strain. Budd and Hartsgrove Mooers play off of each other really well as they fight for control, picking at old scars as only siblings can, and both characters are very believable. Budd makes some great acting choices as Jacob, and we see the growth of the character as he comes to terms with the situation. Hartsgrove Mooers is excellent as Amy; she gets the drive as well as the wry sense of humor of this exhausted but loving daughter.

Henke is simply astounding as Helen. She finds the essential humanity in the part, and it's heartbreaking to watch this powerful character deteriorate. Helen slips into flashback throughout the action, and from Henke's physical and vocal work we can see the contrast between then and now. Throughout the course of the plot, Helen loses the ability to speak; this happens gradually and is really painful to watch. She repeats her mantra about being an archivist, preserving memory, in nearly every scene, but as the play goes on she mumbles and stutters more and more until at last she can only repeat "my work" in reference to an old photograph holding her last precious memory. Even when Helen is at her least articulate, we can clearly see the struggle to gain her bearings and communicate to others in Henke's physical work. Kudos to Henke, Fawcett, and director Sean Christopher Lewis for this touching portrayal of a woman coping with Alzheimer's.

The ensemble -- Martin Andrews and Elizabeth June Bergman with some wonderful choreography; Maggie Conroy, Kathy Maxey, Christopher Okiishi, Rip Russell, and Janet Schlapkohl with short monologues -- bring the focus of the show out from these particular characters and into the big picture. They give us a lot of different perspectives on the issues surrounding Alzheimer's, finally bringing things back to the question of what is valuable about life in the first place. Is identity merely in the cognitive processes, or is the self somewhere deeper? Isn't there something appropriate in children taking care of their parents -- completing the circle? The final moments of the play don't really reach any conclusions, but they do succeed in lifting us away from the heartbreaking drama by highlighting compassion, understanding, and the need to appreciate the time we have.

Martin Andrews, Elizabeth June Bergman,
Saffron Henke and Diviin Huff
The design of Broken Chord fits right in with the themes. The combination of a primarily open set (by Shawn Ketchum Johnson) and color choices that seem to lean towards cool and saturated (by Courtney Schmitz Watson) make for an environment that is often cold and empty, symbolizing the struggle to swim through the void and find that one memory that's worth clinging to for dear life. At the same time, there are some very clever moments of theatre magic -- as when the actors dance on the fly lines, or when points of light flash from everywhere as Helen's synapses struggle to fire. As with any Working Group production, the end product is the result of dozens of collaborators, but effective design choices seem to be the glue that puts it all together.

I highly recommend you go see The Broken Chord. Whether you or a family member have experience with Alzheimer's or it's something you know little about, the material is relevant, educational, and highly moving. It plays this weekend (April 12 - 14) at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City; don't miss it! Visit the Hancher Box Office for tickets.

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