ORLANDO — There are certain subjects that seem completely off limits to comedy — until somebody comes along and proves that’s a total misconception.
Certainly, nobody would have thought it was possible to make a “comedy” dealing with a subject like the Holocaust, until Mel Brooks did it in his movie “The Producers,” or Roberto Benigni did it in “Life Is Beautiful.”
But trying to find absurdist humor in a sweeping historical subject is one thing; just noting that you’ve created a production around a serious health issue, whether as a comedy or drama, can be toxic for some audience members. If you say you have a play about cancer, chances are a lot of people will steer clear simply because they find the entire subject to be scary, or depressing, and it makes them uncomfortable, so they avoid it.
On the night I went to the Orlando Shakespeare Theater’s production of “Blackberry Winter,” the new play by Steve Yockey, I had a similar sense of unease when I learned it was about Alzheimer’s Disease. Mercifully, this is not an illness that’s impacted anyone I know, so I have no personal sense of what it’s like to watch someone you love succumb to this most common form of dementia. But I still felt like I needed to brace myself for what I expected would be a heavy, emotionally overwrought drama.
There are very sad and heartfelt moments in “Blackberry Winter,” but the show wasn’t at all what I had expected as I sat down in my seat with little more than play about Alzheimer’s swimming around in my head. For one thing, the character suffering from Alzheimer’s is never on stage. Instead, we get something close to a one woman play.
Vivienne Avery is a middle-aged woman who has watched her mother slide into dementia, and she offers the audience a glimpse of what it’s like to be the child in a painful role reversal, caring for the parent who once cared for her.
But if you’re thinking the play is about a woman standing on stage talking about how agonizing it is to see a loved parent get Alzheimer’s, and it’s all so depressing that you want to quietly sneak out the door when no one is looking, think again.
Suzanne O’Donnell, who plays Vivienne, is absolutely stunning as she creates this complex and often very funny character in a production that’s anything but a downer. Vivienne is one of those folks who loves to talk, but not necessarily about the sad stuff. In fact, after a few minutes, if there’s one thing you now understand, it’s that Vivienne has armed herself with an amazing arsenal of defense mechanisms to avoid that awful subject.
There’s the piggy bank that Vivienne is constantly tossing coins into after she accidentally utters a vulgar word. There are the scarves she remembers her mother wanting to buy, even though they were ridiculously expensive. Life is crazy, she’s quick to tell us, but not because she’s a caregiver.
Vivienne is an instantly likable person who doesn’t want all her fine guests in the audience to feel down about what’s she’s going through, so she even creates a fascinating story that she shares with us. It’s a fantasy about a White Egret that tries to protect forest animals as they lose their memories to a blind Mole digging into the ground. Actors Kody Grassett (as the Mole) and Mindy Anders (as the White Egret) recreate Vivienne’s fantasy characters for us.
Not everyone enjoys one-character shows — the idea of a single person on stage just talking for 90 minutes doesn’t sound like a production they’d enjoy. Toss in dementia as the subject matter, and now it’s radioactive. That’s why “Blackberry Winter” is a remarkable accomplishment, since it tackles a very uncomfortable subject in a vivid, imaginative, and deeply moving way. Watching Vivienne frantically trying to solve every great challenge the world tosses at her, while hoping to dodge the one towering problem that she can’t easily solve, is a wonderful experience. O’Donnell is joyously funny throughout, and it becomes easy to relate to her. That’s why toward the end, when she finally opens up about how devastating her mother’s diagnosis has been, with vivid descriptions of what her mother has endured as a helpless figure in the nursing home, the impact is far greater on us emotionally than it might otherwise have been. Vivienne is like the person you invite to dinner who is charming and likable, even though you know that deep down inside, what she’s going through is probably quite horrific. It’s a sad subject, but this show is a wonderfully creative look at we learn to cope with tragedy. Watching her, you start to ask yourself, Hey, would I respond in the exact same way?
“Blackberry Winter” plays now through Feb. 5 at the theater at 812 E. Rollins St., in the Goldman Theater. It runs for about 90 minutes with no intermission. Show times are at 7:30 p.m., with senior matinees on Jan. 25 and Feb. 1 at 2 p.m. There will be an audience Talk Back performance on Sunday at 2 p.m.
There will also be Colloquium Series: Faith and Loss sessions on Jan. 26 and Feb. 2 at 7:30 p.m., when Adventist University of Health Sciences is partnering with Orlando Shakespeare Theater for three special performances of “Blackberry Winter,” each followed by a discussion with a panel of health experts. This event is free to all ticket holders.
For tickets or information, call 407-447-1700.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..