A blackberry winter is more a meteorological phenomenon than an actual season: a late-spring cold snap that freezes things down just as summer is in sight around the corner. But enough about the weather. “Blackberry Winter” is also a play by Steve Yockey, and its National New Play Network rolling world premiere rolled into Silver Spring’s Black Box Theater (formerly Round House Silver Spring) on May 19. The run closes Season 12 for Forum Theatre, the small-but-mighty, highly innovative company that relocated from H Street NE to Colesville Road in Silver Spring back in 2009.
They are young. They are hip. They are staging a play about Alzheimer’s.
“I realized that Alzheimer’s disease and dementia play a huge role in my family’s history,” said Forum’s Founding Artistic Director Michael Dove, the play’s director. “But it’s never discussed—we don’t know how to talk about it.”
But Los Angeles-based playwright Steve Yockey knows how to talk about it. And he has provided Dove—a graduate of James Madison University along with some of his Forum co-founders—with an opportunity to address a topic that fits particularly well with the Forum Theatre mission. “We’re interested in big, imaginative storytelling about pertinent, sometimes difficult topics,” Dove explained. “This answers the question, ‘How do we use theater for conversation?’ And, for me, it opens up that subject.”
The Big D
The subject: dementia.
“This is not a Hallmark Lifetime movie,” Dove stressed. “But no one is talking to people in their 30s and 40s about what happens—what can happen—and for me, it opens up that subject.
“I’ve never seen a play that talks about this disease in this way.”
Indeed, “Blackberry Winter” delves deep into the mind of Vivienne, played by four-time Helen Hayes Award-winner Holly Twyford, whose mother is suffering from dementia and whose task at hand is to pull together some semblance of understanding and coping with the disease.
“We use myth and stories to explain the world,” Dove pointed out. “Here we see Vivienne trying to create an origin myth as a coping mechanism.”
The myth is also a mode of transport to take the audience deep into Vivienne’s mind, exploring the mystery of her mother’s dementia by way of her own stream of consciousness. Sara Dabney Tisdale and Ahmad Kamal balance Twyford’s monologue as the Egret and the Gray Mole, acting out the “creation myth” and offering a glimpse into the emotional crumble of a caretaker as her loved one descends into the depths of brain disease.
Tisdale described the characters in their little ensemble as “shadow puppet projections.
“We’re there to tell a story about animals in the forest: we want it to be spring, to preserve and protect and store all the memories—but things happen.”
“We’re not so much a figment of the imagination as we are instruments,” explained Kamal, a native of Egypt who’s making his D.C. debut at Forum Theatre. “Each audience member will find a connection to the story, but it’s still the story of Vivienne Avery.”
The story that takes place pretty much inside Vivienne’s brain, and brings the audience along as she examines the grim reality of her mother’s diagnosis and tries to find ways to cope. In “Blackberry Winter,” Yockey looks at the often unspoken fears of dementia caretakers/survivors as they get a scary glimpse of what might very well be waiting in their own future.
“The challenge is the subject matter,” Dove said. “If I were to hear about a play about Alzheimer’s, I’d think it wasn’t a show for me. But this is not a sentimental or overly sad play. It’s a play about curiosity.
“It’s extremely comedic—Vivienne’s wit is a tool that she uses to deal with this situation, so it’s oddly funny.”
And—perhaps not so oddly—popular. Opening night in Silver Spring marks the National New Play Network’s 52nd Rolling World Premiere, which means that “Blackberry Winter” has been enjoying a spring and summer of simultaneous openings in places like Utah, Georgia, Massachusetts, Texas, California and Oregon. The program provides playwright and production support for new works, gives the playwright opportunities to evolve, and starts a conversation between the nonprofit professional theaters that make up the alliance. And it’s just one of the ways Forum Theatre plugs in to the greater mission of bringing theater in all its diversity to the community in all its diversity.
“We are dedicated to creating a diverse audience,” Dove said. “We accomplish more as a theater when we bring in different ages and different viewpoints.”
To do just that, Forum Theatre holds OpenForum discussions after every performance (except opening and closing nights) offering the audience an opportunity to further explore the production and express their experience to the cast and crew. They also make sure that anyone can afford a seat at the theatrical table, with special Pay-What-You-Want pricing on a set number of tickets for every show provided by the Forum for All initiative.
“To us, it’s about using theater as a tool,” said Dove. “We provide a space for discourse.”
“Blackberry Winter” runs through June 11 with performances at 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday at Forum Theatre, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring. Tickets start at $30. Call 240-644-1390 or visit www.forum-theatre.org.