ORLANDO – Samuel Burstein lives through his rich, atmospheric memories, ones he fondly looks back on for comfort. Now living in a nursing home, those memories are what keeps the elderly man happy.
The only problem, his grandson Marc believes, is that none of those memories are actually Samuel’s. His grandfather’s visions may be vivid, they may seem genuine, but they’re of people he never met, places he never lived, experiences he never had. And it all has Marc worried.
“These aren’t my grandfather’s memories,” Marc tells Dr. Gabriel, his father’s physician at the nursing facility. “None of them are real.”
In a sense, though, Samuel may be following in his grandson’s own footsteps. In addition to observing his grandfather’s medical treatment, Marc’s days are busy trying to build a stable relationship with his girlfriend, Rachel, while also piecing together his estranged relationship with his strong-willed and often critical sister, Beth. Marc’s method of escape, it seems, is strikingly similar to his grandfather’s: he creates fiction.
“Being a writer, my trade is stories,” Marc says. And fiction provides temporary relief – for both of them.
“Praising What is Lost” is an original, full length play by Orlando’s David Strauss, which had its premiere today at the Orlando Public Library. The Playwrights’ Round Table presented a staged reading of Strauss’ play with a cast of seven that included the author himself in the lead role of Marc.
It was part of ArtsFest, an ongoing celebration of the arts across Central Florida, which features 220 events in 81 venues across four counties, and is being produced by United Arts of Central Florida. The artistic activities continue through Feb. 13.
“This is a work in progress,” said Charles R. Dent, president of the Playwright’s Round Table, of “Praising What is Lost.” Dent joined the actors during the performance to read the play’s stage directions.
“This is how we do these things,” Dent said. “We give them a tryout.”
“Praising What is Lost” is an intimate drama, and one that doesn’t necessarily follow the typical path of opening quietly and then building toward shattering moments or sharp dramatic twists. It’s about people you might feel like you know quite well, who have issues and concerns they’re grappling with that any of us could easily relate to – including the fact that Marc, as a healthy, virbrant young man, has to suddenly confront some uncomfortable issues about aging and mortality more directly now that his beloved grandfather is struggling with Alzheimer’s.
Marc looks to comfort from Rachel, who responds by offering to bake him cupcakes and give him a backrub while he watches “Star Trek.” He’s also working to smooth over the rough patches in his sometimes rocky relationship with Beth.
Samuel is in a nursing home, taking part in a trial program for patients recovering lost memories. Samuel’s progress seems good, at first; he remembers a lot, and he’s happy to be able to recall fond moments he lived through. But everything he tells the family worries Marc and Beth, since they don’t recognize a word he’s saying as being something from their grandfather’s past.
But their concerns are meaningless to Samuel, who brags “I feel more alive, more connected than I have in years.” Whether the memories are his own or just dreams he’s created, they enable him to cope.
And the family’s dilemma comes home in a heartbreakingly real moment when Marc decides to take his grandfather’s photo so he can post it on his Facebook page. When Samuel asks to see the picture on Marc’s digital camera, he’s horrified at the image that stares back at him.
“Oh, my God,” he says in dismay, “What happened to me. How did I get so old?”
Recalling his youthful days – the images that stir now in his mind, keeping him content – he says, “Look at me – I’m not film star handsome anymore. I’m ravaged. Look at my white hair.”
Reality, it seems, can be a struggle to confront.
After the reading, Strauss said the play was semi-autobiographical, based in part on his own grandfather being placed in a nursing home.
“I like the dynamic of people having to make decisions they may not be ready for,” he said. “Drama is about conflict.”
Strauss creates a haunting portrayal of a situation any of us with an aging parent or grandparent could be asked to take on. His characters’ reactions are fascinating to watch. Let’s hope “Praising What is Lost” finds its way from a staged reading to a fully produced show in the near future. It deserves to find a larger audience.
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