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‘Still Alice’ probes turbulent waters of Alzheimer’s

Actresses EvBarr left Mariann Mayberry 'Still Alice' Lookingglass Theatre. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

Actresses Eva Barr, left, and Mariann Mayberry in "Still Alice" at Lookingglass Theatre. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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◆ In previews; opens April 20 and runs through May 19

◆ Lookingglass Theatre at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan

◆ Tickets, $36-$70

◆ (312) 337-0665;

Updated: April 15, 2013 4:22PM

Talk about ideal timing. Lookingglass Theatre’s production of “Still Alice” — a stage adaptation of the best-selling 2009 novel by Lisa Genova that looks at an accomplished 50-year-old woman’s sudden descent into early onset Alzheimer’s disease — was in final rehearsals for its world premiere at the very moment that two closely related stories became headline news.

First, President Obama announced plans to include $100 million of federal funding in his budget proposal to Congress — money that would kick start the BRAIN Initiative (or Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies). Then, the New York Times ran a story that began: “The most rigorous study to date of how much it costs to care for Americans with dementia found that the financial burden is at least as high as that of heart disease or cancer, and is probably higher . . . and will more than double within 30 years.”

Theater should not be confused with scientific research or health-care policy. But in her debut novel, Genova — who has described herself as “a Harvard-trained neuroscientist, a [Sanford] Meisner-trained actress, and an entirely untrained writer,” and whose grandmother suffered from Alzheimer’s — was clearly dancing on the curve of the moment.

Her principal character, Alice Howland, is a happily married woman with three grown children and a house on Cape Cod. She also just happens to be at the height of her career as a Harvard professor studying the human brain. But what starts out as a worrying forgetfulness ultimately turns into a devastating diagnosis as Alice learns she is suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Fiercely independent, she struggles to maintain her lifestyle and to live in the moment, though her sense of self is gradually being eroded.

Christine Mary Dunford’s adaptation takes us inside Howland’s head, with two actresses — Eva Barr (as Alice) and MariannMayberry (as “Herself”) — playing an intriguing variation on “the watched and the watcher.” Barr portrays the visible Alice as she noticeably deteriorates, while Mayberry is the inner self that senses what is happening but retains the essence of the healthy Alice.

Dunford’s attraction to Genova’s book was a natural outgrowth of her years of work with The Memory Ensemble, which she co-founded with The Northwestern Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center (CNADC). An improvisational “theater intervention,” the ensemble is designed to improve the quality of life for people with early stage Alzheimer’s disease and related disorders, and its goal is to tap into patients’ creative potential rather than their loss. (Fittingly, Dunford shifted the action from Harvard to Northwestern.)

“One of the reasons I fell in love with this piece was because of its simple treatment of a grueling story,” said Barr, a Lookingglass founding member who appears onstage here periodially, but mostly devotes herself to building DreamAcres Farm, an off-the-grid, organic vegetable farmstead in Minnesota, as well as overseeing the Dreamery Rural Arts Initiative, which offers arts and agricultural experiences for all ages. “The focus of the story is on someone with Alzheimer’s, but I think it also will connect with people who have lost many other things early in life, and those who know how this can affect the family involved, too.”

“Alice is a strong character, and I have known such people in my life,” said Barr, noting that memory loss of any kind is especially terrifying for actors. “I relish the challenge of playing her. I am the Alice that people come in contact with, while Mariann is her internal voice. And while we are always a unit, we are not in the same mental state. We even avoid eye contact.”

“There can be more than memory loss involved in Alzheimer’s,” Barr said, noting that no definitive diagnosis can even be made until after death, when brain tissue can be studied, although a very expensive new brain scan might soon be available. “There are issues of motor control and spacial disorientation. In addition, things are not always consistent. A person can have some very lucid days, and then have outbursts on others, and this seemingly erratic behavior is tough for both the family and caregivers.”

For Mayberry (the Steppenwolf ensemble member who most recently triumphed in “Good People”), it was a fall on the ice this winter that suddenly left her with a dislocated arm that helped shape her portrayal — finding her way into a role that does not exist in the book.

“In a sense I am Alice talking to herself,” said Mayberry. “I am the struggle she is having with the disease. And from my own accident I realize that in a physically shocking situation you become splintered in a way — part of you says this is not really happening, while part of you is in great pain. It’s fascinating to watch how your brain deals with such things. And I know that in my own life, whenever I’m stressed out or need to figure something out, I talk to myself, calm myself down, organize my thoughts.”

“In this play I am the person who is both the greatest champion of Alice, as well as her worst enemy,” said the actress. “We bounce off of each other and try to find the best path. One of us rise up when the other is weak.”

“The book ends before Alice’s disease gets really ugly,” said Barr. “In this play [fittingly set at Northwestern as opposed to Harvard], we get as far as her ceasing to be able to recognize family members.”

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