DECEMBER 2021 | Volume 210
Susinn McFarlen, Adam Grant Warren. Photo by Emily Cooper.
Let’s just get this out of the way right off the top: Adam Grant Warren’s new play, Lights, is terrific.
Reading the blurb—a son visiting his widowed mother for Christmas struggles to help her deal with her Alzheimer’s—doesn’t exactly make you want to run out and buy a ticket. As we and our parents grow older, and as we see tragedies like the late John Mann’s devastating early onset of this terrible, incurable disease, we know it’s out there. We know the statistics. But especially now, after an exhausting couple of years dealing with COVID, is this what we want from our theatre when we can be distracted by a Christmas panto or the latest version of A Christmas Carol?
My answer: a resounding YES. Lights is a thoughtful, funny, original take on the dealing-with-parent’s-dementia play. Commissioned by Touchstone Theatre as part of their Flying Start program, and originally scheduled to be produced almost two years ago, the premiere has been long delayed by COVID. But the extra time seems to have been used by Warren, director Roy Surette and dramaturge Lauren Taylor to season the play. The result is a mind-expanding script tightly produced with beautifully modulated rhythms and three very strong performances.
Warren himself plays Evan, who returns to St. John’s from his home in Vancouver to visit his mother, Nancy (Susinn McFarlen), for Christmas. Evan has arranged for his wife, Sarah (Leslie Dos Remedios), to follow so he can have some time alone with Mom to talk to her about her situation.
Nancy is very aware of her condition. She’s forgetful, she gets angry and frustrated. She resists help from her doctor, resists taking her meds. And she tells a funny, terrible and terrifying story of an incident at school that caused her to retire (or be fired) as a teacher. She’s quick-witted, profane and prone to violent outbursts. McFarlen does a beautiful job showing her pride, confusion and underlying terror.
Evan wants to convince her that she needs more help, that she needs to be more conscientious in taking care of herself. Warren does a very nice job of balancing concern with his awareness that his mother needs her space and independence. He can also be very funny; he has excellent timing.
Ultimately, what keeps the play from being conventional is the fact that Evan, like Warren who plays him, has had cerebral palsy and his lower legs are essentially non-functional. He mostly gets around in a wheelchair, but he often gets out of the wheelchair and crawls around the house (Carolyn Rapanos’ elaborately detailed set) and up and down the stairs. Evan has successfully adapted to his physical condition. He needs to give his mother the chance to do the same with hers.
When Sarah finally arrives (too late in the play for my taste), she adds another clear-eyed perspective on both her husband and mother-in-law. I really liked Dos Remedios’ performance and wanted more of her character’s backstory played out on stage.But the point is that there are no cut-and-dried solutions to the problems of living. The play doesn’t attempt to force us to see the superiority of any single position. These are complex people with multidimensional quandaries. The questions and issues raised by the play continue to resonate in my brain days after seeing it. That’s the best recommendation I can think of.
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