A theater of agony starring Alzheimer's

June 24, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

"Quackenbush," Joe Dennison's entry in this year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival, is a play about marriage, about the limits of love, and about the workings of theater itself. But mostly it is a play about Alzheimer's disease.

This emotionally loaded subject matter will haunt you long after you've left the Vagabonds Theatre, where "Quackenbush" is receiving a sensitive production, directed by Denise M. Ratajczak.

If you have had the wrenching experience of watching a loved one deteriorate from this dreadful disease, Dennison's script is sure to strike a nerve. Indeed, this is the first festival offering I can recall that is truly capable of choking up an audience.

Not that "Quackenbush" is a movie-of-the-week-style tear-jerker. To the contrary, the script's highly theatrical, self-reflexive quality is one of its best features.

The play begins with an actor making his entrance through the audience and explaining that although he plays multiple roles, he is essentially a narrator, like the Stage Manager in "Our Town." (In an example of life imitating art, he also tells us he was cast only a few days ago, which happened to be the case with Roger Buchanan, who stepped into the role on short notice last weekend; Bruce A. Ruth will take over for the rest of the run).

The narrator introduces the story of Jack and Rae Quackenbush, a married couple played by four actors -- one pair portraying them 40 years ago and the other pair portraying them today.

By juxtaposing scenes of the two couples, the playwright demonstrates the extreme changes in their personalities as well as in the dynamics of their marriage after Rae is stricken with Alzheimer's.

For instance, young Rae is the aggressive, take-charge half of the couple, but after she becomes ill, her husband attempts to live for them both -- conducting conversations, playing the radio and discussing meals as if his wife were still aware of such things.

Stephen A. Antonsen and especially Joan Weber deliver bright, fresh depictions of the young Quackenbushes, and Marge Goering makes a frighteningly realistic Alzheimer's sufferer.

However, whether due to the script or the performance, Stanley I. Morstein seems a little too unlike his younger self.

In addition to employing two pairs of actors, the playwright uses other dramatic devices to heighten the impact of his subject.

One of the most gripping is a relatively small stage direction. In a scene depicting one of Jack's nightmares, the two Raes meet in a laundromat. While they chat, young Rae folds laundry, and old Rae, who is already beginning to lose her grip, systematically unfolds it.

But for me, the most heartbreaking scene comes when Rae returns to visit her older self (not unlike Emily returning to Grover's Corners in "Our Town").

The scene works on two levels -- as the vision of a young woman becoming aware of her horrible future, and as a chilling moment of clarity when an old, failing woman realizes what she has lost.

The references to "Our Town," shifts in time and related theatrical touches enhance the sense of dislocation associated with Alzheimer's. "Quackenbush" is the most accomplished of the playwright's three festival productions to date, but he could have taken it a step further. Few illnesses seem as absurd as Alzheimer's, and, as affecting as Dennison's script frequently is, it is intriguing to consider how much more it might be if he journeyed into the sadly appropriate territory of the theater of the absurd.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "Quackenbush"

Where: Vagabonds Theatre, 806 S. Broadway

When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays; through July 3

Tickets: $7

$ Call: (410) 563-9135

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