For 50-year-old Northwestern University professor Alice Howland, a cancer diagnosis would come with a sigh of relief. "There'd be something to fight," she muses, a bargaining sentiment not as aptly applied to her newfound condition: early-onset Alzheimer's disease. The heartbreaking and open question at the center of director Christine Mary Dunford's adaptation of Lisa Genova's 2009 best-selling novel is one the playwright has been navigating offstage with the Memory Ensemble, a joint effort with the Northwestern Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center to benefit people battling the affliction, since 2010: How do you outwit a disease when it's your wit that's under attack?
Dunford's personal connection to the clinical subject matter shows. Her moving and even-keeled Lookingglass production follows Alice (Eva Barr) from the first signs of degeneration—more and more words escaping the tip of her tongue, forgotten party introductions, night walks—through its latter and insidious phases. Besides her husband (Chris Donahue), a man at odds between maintaining his career and providing aid to his wife, Alice's strongest companion is her own sound mind off of which to bounce ideas, represented onstage by Mariann Mayberry. As the alter-ego's effectiveness for providing guidance begins to fade, Dunford provides an affecting image of the isolation patients feel while contemplating end-of-life issues.
Much focus is devoted agitprop-style to the grim practicalities of a horrible condition—fear manifesting itself as frustration in Alice's children (Cliff Chamberlain and Joanne Dubach), disproportionate resources for caregivers over victims, an American lack of sensible or mature outlets to even consider assisted-suicide options—but Genova and Dunford find redemptive qualities in Alice's dedication to live in the moment. There is joy to be found in discovery, they suggest, even if the discoveries themselves cannot last.