Reviewed by Judy Richter
When Alzheimer's disease strikes, it impacts not only its victims but also those who love them. Playwright Sandra Deer personalizes those impacts in "The Subject Tonight Is Love," presented by Marin Theatre Company. This production marks the MTC directorial debut of the company's new artistic director, Jasson Minadakis, who stages it with sensitivity.
The three-person play, running slightly more than an hour and a half without intermission, focuses on three generations of a family. The matriarch, Ruby (Wanda McCaddon), is a smart, feisty retired nurse. Her middle-aged daughter, Diana (Julia Brothers), is a poet and college professor in the same town. Diana's adult son, Josh (Anthony Veneziale), is a professor of evolutionary biology at a college several hours away. As the first symptoms of Alzheimer's begin to appear, both Ruby and Diana are puzzled and dismayed. Ruby knows she's beginning to lose her intellectual ability, and Diana is frustrated and sometimes annoyed by some of Ruby's irrational behavior.
As the disease progresses, the bonds between mother and daughter, grandmother and grandson, and mother and son are tested. Because the play is billed as a memory play, the characters sometimes step aside from the action to address the audience and talk about what's happening. Veneziale also assumes other male roles, such as Ruby's doctor. He cites some alarming statistics about the prevalence of Alzheimer's in the senior population -- a population that's growing as Baby Boomers age.
For the most part, Deer accurately portrays what happens as Alzheimer's robs its victims of their intellect and their personalities. For the sake of dramatic license, however, she allows Ruby to remain more articulate than an actual Alzheimer's patient might be. She also inserts some scenes of questionable relevance when Josh explains his work with insects.
McCaddon masterfully portrays Ruby's decline, both physical and mental, while Brothers conveys Diana's struggles to help her mother while maintaining her own equilibrium. Veneziale's Josh provides some of that needed equilibrium by comforting Ruby and taking some of the burden off Diana.
The set by Melpomene Katakalos is simple but effective with few set pieces, gently curved ramps leading to a slightly raised area in back and a skeletal tree on the left. Kurt Landisman varies the lighting on that tree to signal the progression of the seasons and years. The character-specific costumes are by Callie Floor, while the music and sound are by Chris Houston.
"The Subject Tonight Is Love" isn't the definitive play about Alzheimer's, and it's sure to be followed by others. Nevertheless, it's thought-provoking, especially because of McCaddon's and Brothers' performances.