A woman’s Alzheimer’s brings her caretakers together in Jerre Dye’s nuanced new drama.
Gradually losing one’s wits to Alzheimer’s is somber business. Ask anyone who’s had to witness—and care for—a parent whose mind has withered away. In Jerre Dye’s Distance, receiving its world premiere by Strawdog Theatre Company at the Factory Theater, Irene’s descent into mental exile could have led to a melodrama on the fragility of aging, the loss of identity and the rancor of family life. But as staged by director Erica Weiss, Dye’s searing, lyrical exposition is in turn infused with folksy charm and a rollicking comedy, elements that keep the subject matter engaging.
As portrayed by actor Janice O’Neill, Irene’s Alzheimer’s takes a stark turn for the worse early on, and as she becomes more disoriented, she transitions between episodes of anger and moments of vulnerability. In an early scene, she takes comfort in the familiarity of a light bulb as she struggles with symptoms of confusion; hidden behind her blank stares and recurrent poetic soliloquies she expresses anguish about life’s ephemerality. Caring for her are her daughter, Luvie (Anita Deely); her nurse, Dolly (Loretta Rezos); Dolly’s son, Dylan (Caleb Fullen); and her hairdresser, Leonard (Stephen Rader). As Irene’s mind diverges more from herself, the superb ensemble assumes more prominence throughout the show, building closer relationships with one another and connecting through humor.
There’s much to applaud in Dye’s dramatization. He artfully constructs dialogue that articulates the rising tension as Irene’s dementia worsens. And with a Southern sensibility baked into the discourse (the setting is Memphis), he softens what could be overly heavy scenes with the right comedic punchlines. Truthfully, there’s room for more compelling integration between Irene’s plot and the cheeky subplots ensuing between her caregivers: Dolly, the considerate nurse, and Leonard, the flamboyant stylist, definitely steal the show multiple times. And yet, even though they do, we never feel too distant from Irene, whose unsound mind gives way to a soul yearning for assurance.
Strawdog Theatre Company at the Factory Theater. By Jerre Dye Directed by Erica Weiss. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 10 mins; one intermission.