SALT LAKE CITY – The stage is set simply, with plexiglass tables arranged at increments, each bearing a different item: a small wooden horse, a recipe box, a stack of scarves, a piggy bank, etc. The walls and lights on the scrim are swirls of light purple, and there are white balloons floating in one corner.

April Fossen plays Vivienne Avery in Blackberry Winter. Photo by dav.d photography.

April Fossen plays Vivienne Avery in Blackberry Winter. Photo by dav.d photography.

Vivienne (April Fossen), enters, carrying a purse and a letter in an envelope. She introduces herself to the audience, describing herself as “wonderful desserts, a bulletproof smile, and a terrible person,” and insists that she is not going to open the envelope, because she knows what it contains: a form letter suggesting that her ailing mother be moved to a skilled nursing facility.

Vivienne’s mother is living with Alzheimer’s, and in this gnawing little piece by Steve Yockey, a heartbreaking story of love, fear, desperation, fortitude, regret, and memory unfolds.

Fossen is a powerful actor, delivering up the story of a daughter caring for a disappearing mother by playing on the delicate edge between anger and humor, making her character immediately likable and decidedly real, which ultimately fed into empathy for Vivienne’s woes. She performed the entire play – basically a one-woman monologue – with captivating grace, keeping strong emotion at bay, despite the subject matter, until the end, when she drove home with an acutely-felt surge of grief and frustration. Fossen’s gift for storytelling is astounding, and she is a natural comedian, especially evidenced in a simple act that punctuated the play: placing coins in the piggy bank that served as her “swear jar.” It was, I felt, a clever way to dance off the sting of tension felt when Vivienne would curse out of anger and sadness. Fossen’s ability to ebb and flow, to hurl out an expletive and then laugh, to make the recitation of the recipe for coconut cake sing with emotion, was what made this piece all the more special.

Blackberry Winter

Blackberry Winter. Photo by dav.d photography

An element of the production that was really lovely was a shadow-play, performed by puppeteers and displayed via lights shone on a scrim while two actors, Kalika Rose and S.A. Rogers, narrated the Origin Myth that Vivienne has composed to help herself cope with her mother’s disease. “There’s something to be said of comforting fiction,” she says, and the three part myth goes on to tell a fable of a gray mole and a white egret living in the forest, one digging blindly, the other fighting to protect the memories of all living creatures. Being a fan of myth and folklore, I very much appreciated the addition of this aspect, finding that it added a great deal of color in contrast to the stark reality that was the majority of the script. Rose and Rogers were enjoyable to watch as well. The puppets, designed by Linda Brown and S. Glenn Brown, were beautiful and intricate.

Director Sandra Shotwell has made some very specific choices with this production, as seen in the use of color (Vivienne’s costume, a red dress, is symbolic), and in some of Fossen’s blocking. This happens particularly when Vivienne repeatedly goes to her purse to rub lotion on her hands when becoming too emotional, or placing the envelope containing the letter farther away from where she is standing in an unconscious effort to separate herself from it. It was in these subtleties that the play became an interesting psychological portrayal as well as an emotional one.

blackberry winter - 3

Blackberry Winter. Photo by dav.d photography

By the end of the play, I was not only feeling connected to the story emotionally, but I felt better informed about the devastating illness that affects the lives of not only those who suffer from it, but their families as well. It is a wonderful piece, performed brilliantly, and I would certainly recommend it to anyone seeking a worthwhile evening at the theater.

Blackberry Winter plays at the Chapel, 168 West 500 North, Salt Lake City, UT 84103, from September 16 to October 25. For more information, go to