‘Still Alice’ at Lookingglass delivers powerful ‘long good-bye’
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org April 23, 2013 1:06PM
When: Through May 19
Where: Lookingglass Theatre at Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan
Info: (312) 337-0665; www.lookingglasstheatre.org
Run time: 95 minutes, with no intermission
Updated: April 25, 2013 11:32AM
At once devastating and enthralling, “Still Alice” is not an easy show to watch, but it is riveting from first second to last. And for anyone who wishes to be reminded of the power of theater — and its ability to explore the most complex, emotionally crushing aspects of life — this altogether masterful Lookingglass Theatre world premiere is not to be missed.
It would be far too simple and far too clinical to say that this play is about the unraveling of a mind as a result of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. More to the point, it is about the most profound meaning of identity — not in the trendy political understanding of that word, but in the sense of how we perceive the world, how we trust our instincts, how we connect to the people and things we value, and how our brain and our emotions interconnect. In other words, it gets to the very core of what makes us human.
Based on the bestselling book by Harvard-trained neuroscientist Lisa Genova, the airtight 95-minute production has been adapted and directed by Christine Mary Dunford, and is inspired in every aspect of its conception and realization. At times you might think of the line from Hamlet: “Oh, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!” But what is most poignant here is the way this story captures the fact that, in the final analysis, it is the most mundane aspects of life that are the most crucial ones.
At the center of the story is Alice (Eva Barr, a trim, athletic woman whose face becomes a remarkable map of her character’s quandary in what is an altogether bravura performance). Alice is an internationally respected Northwestern University professor who just happens to specialize in cognitive psychology and linguistic research. She initially blames menopause for what she has noticed to be changes in her ability to grab hold of words, remember appointments, even find her way home from a jog in the neighborhood. But then she gets the real diagnosis, and it is shattering. And what we witness over a period of a year or two is her gradual but stunning loss of her faculties, her coping mechanisms, her frustration and rage, and to some extent, her acceptance.
The marvelous innovation here is the creation of a doppelganger for Alice. She is the character of Herself (played by a wonderfully graceful and subtle Mariann Mayberry). The two women dress similarly, but Herself embodies the vestiges of the healthy Alice — humorous, a bit edgy, focused, aware and empathetic. And the two actress’ interplay here is seamless as they suggest the known self and the increasingly diminished one.
Of course Alice doesn’t live in a vacuum, and the impact of her disease on her family is drawn with fierce honesty. Her husband, John (Christopher Donahue in a marvel of a performance), is her rumpled, distracted scientist husband whose seeming self-involvement is a form of self-preservation. Her adoring son, Thomas (Cliff Chamberlain), is lost, while her daughter, Lydia (the engaging Joanne Dubach), an aspiring actress who works as a barista in Los Angeles, and often is at odds with her mother, begins to connect with her.
John Musial’s open-plan kitchen set is used with a touch of genius as gradually, and without much fuss, the furniture in the room begins to shift in its placement and then disappear entirely. If ever there were a perfect metaphor for what happens in Alzheimer’s this might be it. A remarkable production.