Chicago Theater Review: STILL ALICE (Lookingglass Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on April 21, 2013

in Theater-Chicago


“I miss myself.” That’s the plaintive cry from the titular character of Still Alice, adapted from Lisa Genova’s book, and presented by Lookingglass Theatre Company. The didactic new work recalls Arthur Kopit’s Wings as it shares the struggle from the inside out of Prof. Alice Howland, a 50-year-old brain Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Still Alice" at Lookingglass, Chicagoresearcher who senses – but can’t prevent – her own brain’s breakdown, shredded by Alzheimer’s disease. Shadowing Alice is her embodied internal figure (named Herself in the program but not on stage); dressed like her outer self, she says what Alice can’t. Her presence marks Alice’s slow imprisonment in her own body. Without question, director Christine Mary Dunford’s tailspin tale goes beyond a clinical case history to present Alice’s story, and the documentary-like details will be useful to audience members contending with the same brain rot, but Still Alice is weighed down by its own testimony: Yes, it’s faithful to the novel’s word games and paradoxes of awareness, but the play can feel as static as the situation it depicts.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Still Alice" at Lookingglass, ChicagoMike Tutaj’s projections onto John Musial’s symbolically blank backdrop break the play’s 100 minutes into hit-and-run scenes – from March 2010 to “just a week ago” – as fragmentary as Alice’s weakening hold on reality; they also display words that blur or lose letters as Alice forgets them. Straightforwardly and implacably, the script depicts independent-minded Alice as an energetic recreational runner, a busy lecturer (coincidentally) on the mind, and a colleague/helpmate to husband John (Christopher Donahue), who is another academic at the peak of his powers. In denial from the start, John blames Alice’s lapses on menopause or work stress; his is a “Just take your pills” mentality.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Still Alice" at Lookingglass, ChicagoThe dementia erodes Alice’s brain incrementally, witnessed helplessly by Alice’s increasingly frustrated children (Cliff Chamberlain and Joanne Dubach), who have their own life challenges and can’t cope with their mother’s disease. Old habits fall away like flakes of skin: Alice gets lost as she jogs; she forgets to turn the oven on; she can’t find the bathroom in her own house, etc. She requires “post-it” reminders scattered around her home. She wants to establish a group for Alzheimer’s victims to share their troubles, secretly believing that if they could, they’d be cured. Only the pure, non-negotiable taste of ice cream strikes her as unequivocally right in her world. (Alice is somewhat similar to the amnesiac victim in David Lindsay-Abaire’s Fuddy Meers.)

The disease is no “second childhood” where one discovers Shakespeare and Mozart all over again. There is no going gently into this bad night. The doctors (David Kernsar and Tracy Walsh) do little but palliate the mental disintegration. What comforts Alice is sitting in deck chairs at the family cabin that she barely Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Still Alice" at Lookingglass, Chicagoremembers: For a few splendid seconds she lives in and for the moment – and, for once, with pleasure, not confusion.

Eva Barr registers all of Alice’s increasingly desperate attempts to seize the day and her bewildered rage at always falling short of her own marks. With terse asides and fractured soliloquies, Mariann Mayberry’s “Herself” stoically testifies to Alice’s busy but muted mind. Dunford’s inexorable script insures that her staging charts a series of debilitating defeats, but there’s no rising action here to pull an audience through the pain.

Lawrence Bommer's Stage and Cinema review of "Still Alice" at Lookingglass, Chicagophotos by Liz Lauren

Still Alice
Lookingglass Theatre Company
scheduled to end on May 19, 2013
for tickets call 312-337-0665
or visit Lookingglass

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