Arts Collective Theatre’s (ACT Windsor) original play Wherever It Takes You, written by Linda Lord, takes audiences on an emotionally touching journey into the world of three families struggling to live and cope with Alzheimer’s and Dementia. The journey is brilliantly brought to light by a superb cast of relatively new, some first time, actors, all over the age of fifty who have personal experiences with the diseases.
The play follows the stories of an over compensating husband and his wife, squabbling siblings deciding on what to do with their mother, and a brother and sister coming to terms with their younger brother’s diagnosis of early onset dementia.
Wherever It Takes you opened last weekend, with final performances this weekend, and takes place at the Roth Theatre located in Walkerville’s Shō Studios. It is being presented in a Theatre In The Round setting (cast acting in front of an audience that surrounds them while sitting in chairs). The play was originally conceived by and is directed by Chris Rabideau as part of ACT Windsor’s annual Social Justice Program. The one act play is based on real life families from the Windsor area. It started, as each annual Social Justice Project does, as a series of collaborative workshops with real life Windsor Essex residents, this year with those who struggled with Dementia and Alzheimer’s. “The project’s intention is to make audiences aware, through healthy public dialogue, of social justice issues by providing awareness and education to promote positive change,” states the play’s program booklet.
The exceptional script, direction, and cast brought the raw emotion involved to the forefront. However, Rabideau’s decision to go with a theatre in the round setting is the ultimate reason the play is connecting on an intensely intimate level with audiences. In a post performance talk Rabideau explained he wanted the actors to be immersed with the audience. This brings the audience as close as possible to the story, leaving them to walk away with empathy and understanding. It is, he added, the hardest type of theatre to perform for experienced actors. He praised the cast because the script, finalized in January, only gave the relatively inexperienced group eight rehearsals to prepare. “What this group did in just a month is quite exceptional,” he said. Collectively they showcased the heartbreaking emotions and stages of grief these diseases of the mind unleash on those living with them and those who care for them.
The play opened with the wonderful narrator, Deana Johnson, saying one of several statistics and comments she delivered throughout the play. “There are more than a million Canadians living with dementia, plus approximately 25,000 new cases diagnosed every year.”
Perhaps one of the most stand out performances was put on by Canadian newcomer, Dana Kanova, who immigrated from Bulgaria seven years ago. She plays the role of Mabel struggling with a symptom of dementia known as Sundowner’s (becoming confused and agitated by late afternoon and early evening). Mabel’s children, Connie played by Shelly Davis, and David played by Ernie Rolfie, squabble with one another as they decide the best way to care for her. Resentfulness is one emotion that comes to light as Connie, who lives with Mabel acting as primary caregiver, keeps pushing Ernie to be more involved other than paying bills and going on to live his “uninterrupted” life while she is exhausted lacking a good night’s rest.
Mabel delivers many emotions and brings awareness of Sundowner’s to the audience along with a few chuckles too. During a Sundowner’s episode Mabel becomes confused and angry when Connie explained they already had supper and it was fish. Claiming that is a lie because she hates and never eats fish, Mabel threatens to wash Connie’s mouth out with soap for saying she liked it an hour ago. Things continue to spiral as Mabel becomes angrier, agitated and confused. The scene ends with Mabel cowering on the floor believing someone was trying to break into the house. It was an exceptional performance and way to raise awareness of what Sundowner’s is. In a post play discussion one of the audience members commented that they never heard of Sundowner’s and asked for more information about it, which the cast gladly talked about.
Konova’s husband, Van, also immigrating to Canada from Bulgaria seven years ago, had a small but delightful role as a Tim Hortons employee serving customers. Rabideau explained that the best way to learn your part is to go and study people who do it in real life. So Van spent lots of time in Tim Hortons watching the employees. The result was marvelous delighting the audience with his whooshing sound effects and he poured coffee. He was part of the story-line which followed over compensating husband Michael, played by Robin Swainson, and his wife with Alzheimer’s Jane played by Margaret Hruden.
The pair were fabulous in their roles filled with heartbreak. Michael adores his wife and is in complete denial most of the play of his wife’s condition, even hiding from it at times and others explaining it away. Rather than hear what a doctor had to say, he left Jane alone rather than sit on the appointment. When a neighbour saw Jane wandering without a coat on a cold night at 2:30am, Michael explained it away as she couldn’t sleep saying he suggested she go for the walk. Ultimately, Michael becomes angry with the neighbour, Leslie, played by Brian Burningham, when he suggests that he seek help for his wife’s condition.
Forgetfulness and thinking she is somewhere else was a common thread in Jane’s life. Examples include confusing her kitchen to being a grocery store to forgetting stoves on and refrigerators open. She even blames her husband for doing those things. However she ultimately begins to realize it was her all along. She becomes quite fearful that she has Alzheimer’s because her mother had it. Michael on the other hand kept telling her, because he is in denial, that it was not possible. Ultimately, Jane comes to terms with her condition and feels she will become a burden to her husband. He swears she could never be a burden but Jane convinces him that when the time comes he will do what is best. She has trusted him with her body and heart since they were 14 years old. She explains it is time to trust him with her mind now and made him promise to place her in long term care when the time comes. Swanson and Hruden are remarkable and while Jane’s demise is sad, the couple’s devotion and love for one another is well portrayed and touching.
As Jane’s condition progressed so did her confusion. On the couple’s 50th Anniversary she thought it was their 10th. While dancing with her husband in her long term facility room she thought they were on a night out. She worried they had to be home soon because the babysitter would worry. Rather than correct her Michael felt it would be better to go, Wherever It May Take You.
The third storyline in the play deals with 54 year old James, played by Mike Cardinal, who is diagnosed with early onset dementia. He hides it from his older brother and sister, Vince played by Cal Batten, and Bernice played by Pam Hartford. While this storyline is filled with sorrow, there were a couple of funny moments in a play with so few. When Bernice first made her appearance, Hartford was delightful as she danced around in a robe, wearing a towel on her head, and singing into her hairbrush as a makeshift mic. She actually lip synched, You Sexy Thing, the 1975 hit pop song by British band Hot Chocolate, directly to audience member Joe McParland as the audience chuckled. Cardinal, while mostly and marvelously showing James’ disparaging emotions, did have the audience laughing a few times. His brother Vince, began to notice changes in James, beginning with becoming frustrated, angry, and accusing others of cheating during a card game. After hiding his illness and the fact he couldn’t remember what Trump was, James does come clean to his brother and sister. Vince apologizes for not being understanding during the card game. James says, “forget about it, I already have.” That generated some much needed laughter for a little break in the play’s mostly serious side.
Cardinal nailed his role, like the other performers he brought a wide depth of issues and emotions to the audience as his character’s dementia progressed. The common one of denial was displayed often including telling his doctor he couldn’t have the disease because he Googled his symptoms and it could be so many other things. I’m only 54, never smoked, rarely drink, and stay fit, so this can’t be possible he told the doctor.
Later James with the grief of losing his job becoming sad, frustrated and angry. He worked on the line in a factory, he loved his job, he began to become forgetful and his boss felt he wasn’t performing well and let him go. This crushed James, after all he dreamed of retiring from that job and spending his days fishing and enjoying the outdoors. This is one dream his dementia has caused him to mourn because he only had a few years left to live.
Later as the disease progressed Vince became upset as James continued to confuse him with their father. James would tell Vince he was waiting for him to come home and had something to tell him. Eventually, Bernice convinced Vince to go along with it and pretend to be their dad. So Vince let James’ mind go, Wherever It May Take You. James shocked his brother and sister by confessing he was gay and worried when he thought he was talking to his dad. He wanted confirmation his dad (and brother) were not ashamed of him, and he was not hated or unloved. Pretending to be their dad, Vince told James, they could never hate him and loved him no matter what.
As Bernice stated, Vince gave James the best gift possible, something all of us want, unconditional love.
The cast received a well deserved standing ovation following the Saturday (March 7) night performance Eyes On Windsor attended. Following the play, the cast and crew held a discussion and question session with the audience. Among what was discussed were audience members sharing some of their personal experiences with Alzheimer’s and Dementia.
One audience member commented about his family’s experience with his father’s Alzheimer’s bringing up many points. An interesting one was how it affected his mother, a very social person who withdrew from social activities as she cared for her husband. She felt stigmatized by the disease. Another shared that he called his mother to wish her a Merry Christmas and she insisted that it wasn’t Christmas day. Another had a heartbreaking story of a family member sitting on a casket to stop a funeral.
Overall, ACT Windsor not only delivered an exceptional original play but they took it a step further with the whole creative process and post show discussion with the audience to fulfill their Social Justice Theatre Project goal of raising awareness and creating positive change.
The chances are within the next ten years or so almost everyone in Canada (and around the world) will have some sort of experience with Alzheimer’s and dementia. As narrator Deanna Johnson said during the play, “By 2031, it’s estimated that the number of cases will rise to 937,000 an increase of 66%.” In addition she stated, “There’s no point in correcting them, they can’t remember and you contradicting them, only makes it more difficult.” So join them on their journey Wherever It Takes You.
Wherever It Takes You will be performed for one more weekend only at Sho Studios on March 13, 14 & 15. Caesars Windsor Cares is the presenting sponsor. For more information visit the Eyes On Windsor events calendar or http://actwindsor.ca/