ORLANDO – In a sense, it seems like a play about Alzheimer’s would naturally be dramatic and gripping, considering the turmoil and upheaval family members experience when a loved one gets this terrible diagnosis.
But that’s also the challenge of staging a play that deals at some point with Alzheimer’s: the subject matter scares people off. It’s depressing to think about, any one of us could go down that path, and it’s natural to want to avoid dealing with it, even in art.
So it sounds like a production dealing with Alzheimer’s would be too heavy, too downbeat, at a festival like Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, which has so many upbeat comedies to offer.
What’s so miraculous about the play “La Reina Yolanda,” written and performed by veteran actress Leesa Castaneda, is just how joyous an experience it is. A deeply moving piece, “La Reina Yolanda” chronicle the life of Yolanda, a woman born in Puerto Rico who comes to the United States as a child. She deals with a lot of hardship along the way, including an abusive first husband.
Then, when her life finally begins to settle down, and she revels in the joys that her children and then grandchildren bring to her life, she confronts an even more agonizing twist of fate, as she begins a slow battle with Alzheimer’s.
There’s even a harrowing moment when Yolanda feels like she can no longer endure her husband’s abuse, thinks she’s trapped and can’t escape, and contemplates suicide.
And yet, the play isn’t depressing, or downbeat, at all. Yolanda’s life is, in many ways, quite ordinary, the kind of life millions of other women have experienced.
And watching her journey from childhood to being a woman in her 60s is a truly wonderful experience.
The play was written by Castaneda, who said she decided to chronicle her mother’s life, from childhood to old age, after she started collecting her mother’s memories after her father passed away in 2014.
As her mother’s battle with Alzheimer worsened, Castaneda started writing her mother’s stories down to cope with the emotional toll of dealing with this disease.
What she created, though, feels far more like a celebration of life than anything else. And Yolanda’s story, which is so easy to relate to and empathize with, has a virtually instantaneous emotional pull.
In this one-woman show, Castaneda plays herself as the narrator, and then her mother — starting as a child living in a small house in the beautiful mountains of Puerto Rico. She learns her mother wants to move them to New York. She hates the idea — a city where the buildings are so big you can’t even see the tops of them, where it’s cold and it snows, where you have to fly in a plane way up in the sky to get there. The little girl doesn’t want to leave her friends behind.
But she does move to New York City, where she grows up with all the excitement of being in a big city — and has plenty of hardship as well, including a grueling factory job and a husband who is lazy and abusive. No scene better illustrates the terrible position she found herself in than when she pleads with her husband to look after their son, who is ill, and he refuses. If she stays home, she warns him, she could lose her job.
He responds by telling her that he won’t look after their son — but she better not lose her job.
But life does get better. The family moves to Michigan, where Yolanda leaves her husband and starts her own business, a beauty salon. The real estate agent who finds her a home starts courting her — and he turns out to be kindly and sweet. Her family gets larger and raising her children becomes her greatest pleasure. Eventually the family relocates to Florida, and that’s when she will eventually find herself suddenly forgetting where she left her car keys and purse.
What makes the play so emotionally gripping is Yolanda herself. No matter what life throws at her, she always finds within herself the strength and inner drive to keep going, to fight on — and with a refusal to back down or give her. She has an amazing can-do attitude, and not a drop of self-pity. She’s funny, charming, and a joy to watch.
Castaneda is stunning in the role, and she transforms “La Reina Yolanda” is something quite beautiful: an illustration of just how remarkable one person’s simple life can be, once you look back at it from beginning to end. It’s inspirational to follow that journey, and see what one person — who could be your neighbor, a co-worker, or the cashier at the coffee shop you go to every morning — has experienced over the course of six decades.
By the end of “La Reina Yolanda,” rather than feeling sad, this nostalgic play may leave you wondering how your own life would be recreated if someone took the time to chronicle it in this same way.
“La Reina Yolanda” is being performed in the White Venue. Catch the show on the following dates:
* Wednesday, May 24 at 5:30 p.m.
* Friday, May 26 at 7 p.m.
* Saturday, May 27 at 4 p.m.
* Sunday, May 28 at 6 p.m.
Log on to the Orlando Fringe website at Orlando Fringe for tickets.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Koby’s New Home”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.