Still thinking about Lookingglass Theatre's Still Alice—and about Alzheimer's | Bleader

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Still thinking about Lookingglass Theatre's Still Alice—and about Alzheimer's

Posted By on 05.12.13 at 09:00 AM

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Eva Barr, Christopher Donahue
  • Liz Lauren
  • Eva Barr and Christopher Donahue in the play adapted and directed by Christine Mary Dunford
"Everyone forgets things."

In the novel Still Alice—the source for Lookingglass Theatre's play of the same name—that's what Alice hears from her husband when she tells him she has Alzheimer's disease.

It's a denial, and the same thing I said when my friend Nancy Smiler Levinson told me that her husband, a Los Angeles cardiologist (and Northwestern medical school alum), was suffering from the same ailment.

He still seemed so normal. Mostly. As Alice does when the Lookingglass play gets under way. And if you can normalize bad news, you can blow it away.

Until you can't.

The play, directed by its adapter, Christine Mary Dunford, is rocky at the outset. Drawn closely from the book—but substituting a Northwestern University setting for Harvard—it asks a lot of the audience. To imagine that a woman jogging in place at the edge of the stage is running blindly for miles and through traffic, for example. And that the other woman hanging out with her is her inner self, incarnate.

And then it works. By the time Alice's loving husband undermines the neat exit she had planned for herself, it has you and won't let go, even after the bows have been taken. Lookingglass founding member Eva Barr is (forgive this) memorable in the title role, and Dunford's externalization of Alice's inner self—which bothered some critics—seems smart and true to me, especially as played by Mariann Mayberry.

The fictional Alice, a brain researcher and academic, acknowledges what she has; my friend's husband remains, as she puts it, "steadfast in denial." The outcome, in both cases is the same.

This week Baxter International Inc. announced that it has given up on an Alzheimer's drug that looked promising as recently as last summer, the latest failure in the attempt to find a cure. In the meantime, those faced with it grapple, and some make art. Novelist Lisa Genova is a neuroscientist; playwright/director Dunford's interest sprang from her work with Alzheimer's patients at the Northwestern Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center; and my friend, a former journalist and the author of many books for young readers, has written a book-length free-verse account of the excruciating last chapter of her marriage.

Perhaps I'm too close to be objective, but what she's shared about her Alzheimer's journey reads like a novel and packs the emotional punch of a poem. It's available at her website as well as from Amazon.

Still Alice runs through May 19 at Lookingglass Theatre Company, 821 N. Michigan, 312-337-0665; there will be postperformance panels and discussions on May 12, 16, 18, and 19.

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