Maryland troupe lets alcoholics act out problems HeyDay Players' bleak scripts are ripped from actors' lives

March 25, 1998|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

GLEN ECHO - Courtney, 67, a widowed mother of six, is already well in her cups when she barges into the annual family reunion and demands a scotch. She carps on her nephew and harangues her youngest daughter. Within minutes, she discovers this year, five of her children have refused to come.

The ingrates, she seethes. All the more reason for another drink. "You've had enough," her sister Margaret tries to soothe her.

"My kids have left me, my husband's dead and I've had a 15-year ongoing headache from all the rest," Courtney snaps. "You're not going to tell me I can't have a drink."

Courtney is convincing as she practices delivering these lines. The bleak and blurred family reunion script she and others rehearsed one recent afternoon is ripped straight out of her own life.

Sober nine years, she is part of an unusual Maryland theater troupe of older recovering alcoholics who draw on their own lives to write and perform plays.

Reaching seniors

The group, The HeyDay Players, is in its second year. It performs at senior centers, churches and health clinics to reach seniors who might be hiding a similar alcohol problem and to educate doctors and nurses who often don't recognize it.

"I'd been drinking for 33, 34 years on a daily basis," Courtney explained during a break in practice. "But when my family started to drop away from me ... that did it." She knew she had to change.

Margaret, 73, who plays Courtney's sister in "A Family Reunion," drank for more than 40 years. When she finally stopped 13 years ago, it took her years to rebuild the trust with her eight children alcohol had twisted and shattered.

"If I picked up another drink, it would destroy any relationship I have with my children," she said firmly. "It would be the greatest injustice I could do."

And yet, when asked what she hoped to achieve with the play, she said: "I hope we stay sober."

"Alcoholism is a poorly identified and poorly recognized condition in the elderly," said Meg Campbell-Kotler, with the Montgomery County Commission on Aging, a sponsor of the troupe. As many as one in five of those over 65 have problems with alcohol, researchers say.

Pioneered in Boston

The theater approach was pioneered in Boston, with The Next Generation, and new troupes are forming in Michigan and other states. "When I got in recovery, I realized the way people get sober is they hear other people and learn from their experience, strength and hope," said Lynn Bratley, founder of the Boston troupe. "These are vivid, vivid stories."

In keeping with the anonymity of Alcoholics Anonymous, members of the Maryland troupe are identified only by their first names.

Joe, 68, a recovering alcoholic and a member of last year's performance of "The Guy in the Glass," said the plays break through the wall of denial that is so common with alcoholics.

"Denial is the magic word," he said. "Even for me, until about three years ago, an alcoholic was a skid-row bum who sat under a bridge drinking fortified wine. Not me.

"But it is you. And you can see the expression on people's faces in the audience. The recognition. The fear."

Joe, a printer who drank heavily from age 16 to age 62, and three other older men often wept as they recounted hiding booze in garden hoses and transmission fluid jugs, spending nights in jail after driving drunk and alienating their families.

"As I look back, I didn't harm my children," said Joe. "But I denied them a lot."

Ray, a 68-year-old banker, told how he left his young children for days at a time and checked into a hotel to drink bourbon. On visits to his doctor, John, 62, a former public health official at the National Institutes of Health, was given anti-depressants and Valium. Alcohol was never suspected.

The productions try to tackle what the actors say is a hardened and pervasive myth: Nothing can be done for old drinkers. "When you're older, there's a sense of helplessness," Courtney said, "that we're at the end of our lives anyway, so who gives a damn?"

In the play, as in her own life, Courtney's children intervene. She checks into an alcohol treatment facility, where she stays 62 days because her liver and health are so badly damaged. She joins Alcoholics Anonymous and slowly and carefully repairs relationships with her children.

At the end of the play, a newly sober Courtney prepares a feast for another family reunion. This time, everyone is coming.

In real life, happy endings aren't always so easy. Courtney is close to three children, but three others remain distant.

"I drank over most of the years I raised my children. And some had very specific expectations about what mother sober would be like," she said. "And I'm not. I'm not a milk-and-cookies grandmother. I'm not a stereotypical anything. But I have my own life now. My independence. My sobriety."

Pub Date: 3/25/98

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