The Big “A” is a family drama about Alzheimer’s, cancer, dementia and caregiving, and represents a situation that so many families are dealing with today. While it is a common situation, it is a different world from the one in which people ordinarily live. Everything in the world of dementia is intense, sometimes brutal, sometimes wildly and absurdly funny, turned upside down, and it is like waking up in a nightmare that can only be understood by those who have experienced it.
This play came out of those real experiences that my family went through during the months of my father’s pancreatic cancer which led to his death. My mom had already had Alzheimer’s for several years, and my dad was her constant companion and caregiver. In his 90s, he still enjoyed shopping and cooking, doing his own bills, and feeding and taking care of my mom. When he suddenly got weaker and found that he could no longer function as well, or think as clearly, we went to the doctor and discovered that he was in the final stages of cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is like that – it sneaks up and spreads sometimes without any symptoms until it is too late. In a short period of time, my wife and I became responsible for taking care of both of them in many ways, and I began to help with many of their daily functions. At the same time, my Dad went on a Hospice program, and through that program we were provided with a Home Health Aide for a good part of the days. In some cases the Aides were great, and I don’t think we would have survived without them, but we also had some health care workers that were truly Characters, and provided both frightening and comic moments for us and my parents. One health aide was in her sixties herself, and while my Dad was dying, she complained to him about her retirement benefits and tried to get him to call the nursing agency to demand that she be given better wages. Another spoke almost inaudibly until she got frustrated, then started to scream orders in a loud voice that also couldn’t be understood.
My Mom’s dementia and my Dad’s growing confusion also gave them some strange ideas about the health care workers. The stories of what had transpired, or at least what my parents said had taken place, started to pour in. Did a home health aide really pour cold water down my Dad’s back in the bath, as he reported when he called me from the bathtub on his cell phone? We also had our own truly insane interactions with my parents at times, and these stories seemed too poignant, too absurd, and too relevant not to write them up and turn them into a performance piece that others could see and share.
Did my Dad really try to reach me for 48 hours while my ringer was apparently off? Was my mom really mysteriously transported to Massachusetts during the night? Was it true, as she reported, that my Aunt in another state, who was in her 90s and also suffering from dementia, had climbed up a high wall and fallen to her death? And had her brother, dead for over 40 years, suddenly been found alive and well and living in the woods after all that time?
The Big “A” serves as our record of the wild, intense journey of aging, illness and dementia that so many families experience today. I transformed the characters and expanded the stories in order to fit the cast of the small acting company that came out of my training program, who were eager to do this piece, and, like the fantasies that sometimes attend these illnesses, the characters have become very real in the hands of these inspired actors.
The Big “A” is a roller coaster ride through this experience, from dementia and illness to caregiving and death, from the hallways to the Hospital to the Hospice program and ultimately to the Hospice facility where my Dad passed away. When my Dad was finally released from the misery that had enveloped him and us in his last days, we were left in shock, grief, and exhaustion to care for my mother and try to keep moving forward, and we continue now to deal with the long-term challenge of long-term care, a situation that almost every family will face at some point. My Mom is a good sport, a good friend, and a “tough old bird,” and still has many of her wits about her, and much of her sense of humor. It’s important that we too understand this time of life with compassion, interest and with humor – otherwise it’s just too hard.
Robert Epstein is the playwright and director of The Big A.. He is also the program director of The Macomb Theater Company and program director and instructor of the Robert Epstein Acting Studio (REAS).
The Atlas Performing Arts Center – Sprenger Theatre
1333 H Street, NE Washington, DC 20002
(Between 13th and 14th Streets, NE)
SAT 7/12 @ 4:15 PM
TUE 7/15 @ 6:30 PM
SAT 7/19 @ 2:00 PM
WED 7/23 @ 6:30 PM
SUN 7/27 @ 2:00 PM
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