“Her mind was smashed to pieces … but the pieces were still her pieces.”
Thus the narrator of “The Waverly Gallery,” a remarkable play now on Broadway, describes his 85-year-old grandmother as dementia warps her once-brilliant mind beyond recognition.
This production of Kenneth Lonergan’s drama, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is a brutally honest look at the effects of dementia both on the one afflicted with the disease and on the family as a whole. It is perhaps the smartest thing ever said on the subject, fiction or nonfiction.
In wrapping up his rave review of the play for The Wall Street Journal, drama critic Terry Teachout wrote, “It would be unfair not to warn you going in that if you have any firsthand experience with caregiving, you may find certain parts of ‘The Waverly Gallery’ to be almost unendurably painful to watch.”
He’s not kidding. Seeing the play brought back excruciating memories of the years when my mother cared for my father during his battle with Alzheimer’s disease … followed by the period when my sister and I helped care for our mother as dementia ravaged her mind and spirit.
Lonergan, whom Teachout calls “America’s greatest living dramatist,” explores the nature and progress of dementia via the character of Gladys Green, a once-prominent lawyer who in her later years opened a small art gallery in Greenwich Village to keep her busy. But now, even the gallery is too much for her to manage, as her family discovers early on in the play.
Later, we watch Gladys’ mind unravel during family dinners and other encounters with her daughter, son-in-law and grandson, as well as a young artist whom Gladys invites to hang paintings in her gallery. They struggle to contain their frustration and even anger at Gladys as she constantly repeats herself and makes one mistake after another – for example, giving snacks to the family’s overweight dog despite incessant pleas not to feed him.
“It is a harrowingly honest group portrait of the havoc wrought by that disease, not only on those who have it but on those who love them,” Teachout writes.
Ben Brantley, reviewing “The Waverly Gallery” for The New York Times, says Lonergan drew on his own experiences watching his grandmother struggle with dementia. The play, Brantley writes, “is a group portrait in which everyday life is distorted to the point of surrealism by the addled soul at its center.”
In addition to a powerful script, the production at the John Golden Theater is supported by a brilliant cast, including the great screenwriter, director and comedian Elaine May in the role of Gladys Green. May herself is 86 years old.
“Here’s a hell of an acting challenge,” Vinson Cunningham writes in reviewing “The Waverly Gallery” for The New Yorker. He likens the play to “an experiment in speculative neuroscience: What happens when a large personality persists but comes unbound from the structures of memory, custom, and comprehension that once contained it?”
Also in the cast is Joan Allen, recognizable from prominent film roles including "The Bourne Supremacy," and Michael Cera, who left an indelible mark in the teenage love story “Juno.”
Better than any article or book I’ve read on the subject, the ensemble cast conveys in an immediate and visceral way the emotional and spiritual toll dementia takes on a family.
“A family is a finicky machine: when one part starts to falter, the whole thing slows to a halt,” Cunningham smartly observes. “There’s nothing like one member’s slide toward death to send the others spiraling backward and inward – inspecting old arrangements and restarting lapsed arguments, wondering just what it was, besides blood, that ever held them together.”
“Spiraling backward and inward” – that’s as good a metaphor as I can imagine for the experience of caring for a loved one who suffers from dementia.
Written by T.J. Foderaro