Steve Yockey’s Blackberry Winter is making its "rolling world premiere" at seven different theaters across the country this year as part of the National New Play Network. Despite being sporadically affecting, this paper-thin new play is mostly forgettable, gently directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary at New Repertory Theatre.
A letter arrives for Vivienne from her mother's assisted living facility, a place where her mother has been "living with, not suffering from" Alzheimer's for the last three years. As the self-appointed "Proactive Family Care Manager," Vivienne is responsible for the brunt of her mother's care, and she fears the letter will signify a new chapter of aggressive change, namely the inevitable transition from assisted living to a nursing home.
For the next 85 minutes or so, Vivienne (played with transfixing candor by Adrianne Krstansky) attempts to make sense of all of the conflicting emotions that come with caring for a dying parent. It is through Vivienne's honest, nonlinear chronicle of her mother's illness — and the toll that it has taken on Vivienne herself — that we see just how closely opposing emotions like love and hate are intertwined.
Vivienne addresses the audience directly for most of the play. From her fraught relationship with her sister, to trying to reconcile the difference between her mother the person and her mother the problem, no emotion is spared. The piece is most affecting when Krstansky is unspooling before us with a listless, rolling anxiety percolating throughout. She is hanging on by a thread, and no Boston-area actress is better at that than her. She is tired, but spunky and occasionally in good humor, despite the play being unintentionally devoid of it.
Aside from baking in the middle of the night, Vivienne begins to think about something else she might do to "keep the wolves at bay." The logical answer, of course, is to create a comforting origin story about Alzheimer's. Vivienne has concocted a fable about forest animals that wish to keep their memories safe, featuring a white egret (Paula Langton) and a gray mole (Ken Cheeseman). To reference the fable would be enough, but to act it out in its entirely brings the otherwise respectable evening to a halt, although there is amusing puppetry projected on a screen, by set designer Matthew T. Lazure.
The fable is told in three parts, with a pace by Langton and Cheeseman that is better suited for story time at the local library.
The production is directed with a steady patience by Bridget Kathleen O'Leary, though there are a few stage directions that are perplexing, such as when she has Langton and Cheeseman sit on stage, between the fable-telling moments, watching Vivienne address the audience.
Despite its bleak subject matter, Blackberry Winter is not a joyless affair, though it does come very close to being humorless. While there are kernels of splendidly perceptive writing to be found in playwright Steve Yockey's story, there is still work to be done in order to better shape the narrative and jump in-and-out of worlds.
Blackberry Winter explores the emotion behind what it means to be the caretaker of a parent with Alzheimer's and how we handle watching a parent die. But the childlike fable threaded into the plot leaves the story feeling more like a fairytale without a moral.