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theater: Sally Wells Cook's exceptional performance drives the Firehouse's intensely real and personal portrait of Alzheimer's.

Fragmented Worlds

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Up to this point, Gladys has lived a life of intense activity. She practiced law, traveled extensively and was a passionate political activist. She's the kind of person that "if you ever wanted anything done in New York, you called Gladys."

But now Daniel must patiently adjust his grandmother's hearing aid and repeatedly correct her mistaken impressions about the world around her. Though it is never explicitly mentioned, it becomes apparent that Gladys suffers from Alzheimer 's disease. Daniel, Gladys' daughter Ellen (Kim Neblett), and son-in-law Howard (Stan Kelly) are soon engaged in the caregivers' cycle of sympathy, impatience, frustration, exhaustion, anger and guilt.



Don (Rick Brandt), a painter from Boston (Brandt's accent comes and goes) of dubious talent, invades the family's self-contained world. Gladys agrees to show his pictures and recklessly suggests that he live in the backroom of her gallery. Don is unctuous, annoying and narcissistic. He demonstrates that it's possible to live in one's own disconnected world even without suffering from Alzheimer's. The family is wary of him, but also relieved to find someone who can divert Gladys from time to time.



Despite the efforts of those around her, we watch a human being dissolve before our eyes. In Cook's outstanding performance, even her facial expressions become less focused as the play goes on. And although her condition is the source of considerable humor, we also see terrifying flashes of self-awareness that occasionally bubble to the surface of her mind.



As Daniel, Peter Schmidt's performance is a shade self-conscious. But in our hyperironic times, it's not easy to portray a dutiful, loving grandson without seeming self-conscious. His most natural moments actually occur when he wryly discusses his torturous semi-girlfriend.



From time to time, Daniel addresses the audience directly with commentary about Gladys. Though there is considerable wisdom woven throughout this narration, it unfortunately tends to diminish the dramatic energy of the play until the action resumes.



Kim Neblett and Stan Kelly professionally emit the complex vibes of an affectionate married couple in a stressful environment. Neblett is especially good as a woman navigating a maze of conflicting feelings about her mother.



The playwright, Kenneth Lonergan, never resorts to melodrama, tortured plot twists or excessive theatricality to tell his story. It all feels intensely real and deeply personal. This isn't surprising, since Gladys' character was inspired by Lonergan's own grandmother.



Hanging a number of overlapping empty gold frames in the middle of the stage, Tim McMath designs a minimalist set that strikes notes about the fragmentation of Gladys' mind. And though Lee Mack's lighting design is not remarkable otherwise, the disjointed shapes that are projected on the stage touch the same chord.



Because of extensive overlapping dialogue, the audience can experience something akin to the anarchy in Gladys' mind. In the best scene in the play, a dinner-table conversation disintegrates into a sprawl of words and rising tension. Like Gladys, we cannot possibly hear every line; all we can do is pick out a disjointed word or phrase. Under David Denson's direction, the actors begin their lines with such precision that the real points of significance fly out of the pile at just the right time. The sensation is far more provocative than anything in Daniel's commentary. During these moments, we catch brief but tangible glimpses into the bewildering and tragic nature of Alzheimer's disease. This is the transformative power of theater at its best. S



"The Waverly Gallery" is playing at the Firehouse Theatre Project, 1609 W. Broad St., through May 12. Performances Thursdays - Sundays, $15. Call 355-2001 for information.





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