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Capital Fringe Review: ‘The Big A: Scenes From a Vanishing Landscape’

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Grown children often have to care for aging parents. This is hard enough when the parents retain the mental faculties, but can be gut-wrenching when parents can no longer recognize their own children. In Macomb Theater Company’s production of The Big A: Scenes From a Vanishing Landscape, a family attempts to cope with the emotional fallout of Alzheimer’s disease.

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The Big A is a play about the gradual decline of Alzheimer’s. The script treats this subject with the respect it deserves. Writer and Director Robert Epstein tells the story of Janice (Lois Bernstein) and Alan (Kirk Lambert), an elderly married couple who both suffer from dementia. Their story unfolds through scenes with one another, their two sons and their daughter-in-law. Janice and Alan are often appropriately confused, repetitive and argumentative. However, there are several scenes that duplicate an argument or conversation from a previous scene. This is typical for Alzheimer’s patients, but the repetition greatly impedes the show’s pace. There are also a few dream-like scenes in which the parents’ delusions come to life. These are fairly slow-moving scenes, and I’m not sure that they add to the story arc.

Although Bernstein and Lambert are a little young for their roles, and although they are both visibly aged, I kept wondering how the show would have worked with older actors. There is a moment at the end of the show where it makes sense to have slightly younger actors, but I’m not certain that this moment outweighs the rest of the show. Both characters spend most of the play in their own worlds, and this makes meaningful character interaction nearly impossible. Bernstein has a few funny and feisty moments when she forgets that she is married and asks Bell to introduce her to a much younger man. In a scene where Lambert calls his son to complain about his caretaker having to be near him when he bathes, Lambert delivers a powerful and heartbreaking performance.

Jon (Reuben Bell) and Lou (Mack Leamon) play the devoted sons who are powerless to stop their parents’ mental deterioration. There is one very nice scene between Leamon and Lambert, but the audience doesn’t get a chance to see what the family dynamic was like before the disease. A few flashback scenes might have helped illustrate the contrast between the relationships before and after Alzheimer’s. Lou and his wife Amy (Mary Clare Hess) discuss how they will care for Lou’s parents as their conditions worsen. The dialogue in this scene is very touching.

I see a lot of potential in this show. The set and costumes are excellent, and the set changes at the end are an expressive use of the space. A few scene adaptations and stronger choices about the characters’ relationships would provide the audience with a clearer picture of this family and their struggles. There are a few technical modifications that could assist pacing. The light and sound cues could start slightly sooner, and the gradual light fades could be a little shorter.

This is an important subject matter, and I applaud Macomb Theater Company for tackling a show that really highlights the despair of Alzheimer’s patients and families.

The Big A: Scenes From a Vanishing Landscape has the potential to be an even more powerful and moving theatrical experience.

Running Time: 80 minutes.

The Big A: Scenes From a Vanishing Landscape is playing through July 27, 2014, at Atlas Performing Arts Center – Sprenger Theatre -1333 H St NE in Washington, DC. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the show’s Capital Fringe Page.

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