SALT LAKE CITY — The Leona Wagner Black Box at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center is a lesser known jewel of the Salt Lake City theatre scene. I attended the lovely venue for PYGmalion Theatre Company’s latest show, Last Lists of My Mad Mother by Julie Jensen. Jensen’s moving story of a woman who is caregiver to her mother in the late stages of Alzheimer’s is a piece as intimate as space. The limited audience of about 60 people sit close as Dot, played by Tamara Johnson Howell, leads us through the tragedy and the comedy of witnessing the erosion of her elderly mother’s mind and body.
The program includes a tender note from Jensen, whose own mother died from complications of Alzheimer’s, dedicating the play to caretakers whom she calls heroes. Having been a caretaker myself, I find both Jensen’s writing and Howell’s performance hauntingly accurate. They capture the wild swings of emotion involved in such an intimate and often painful relationship. As a caregiver it is easy to allow the anger at the circumstances be directed at the patient suffering the illness.
Jensen’s script perfectly captures this as Dot stops herself from responding with anger to her mother’s frustrating behavior by reminding herself of the difference between “cannot and will not” as in her mother cannot do better in that moment. The one act production covers a broad range of complex thoughts and feelings; from love to cynicism, tenderness to the macabre, and pithy sarcasm to anger at unrelenting, unresolvable and maddening illness. Howell skillfully delivers what Jensen serves up.
Reb Fleming as Ma gives an utterly convincing performance of a woman who is trying and failing to hold onto the last wisps of her mind. Her repetitive gestures and mannerisms of speech and movement portray the essence of a woman descending into the abyss of this terrible disease. Dot describes her mother’s habits of listing parts of speech, math problems and the like as “keeping the holes in her mind from showing”.
Ariana Broumas Farber as Sis offers a strong balance to the other two women with her unique and distinct style that works well in this supporting role. Farber’s seemingly endless parade of workout wear, with a costume change at nearly every entrance, is a nice comic touch by costume designer Maddiey Howell Wilkins. The play was full of poignant narrative asides to ease tension. Howell and Farber enhance Dot’s interactions with Sis to provide the comic relief requisite in tackling such potentially dark and challenging subjects as aging and mental decline.
The intimate space was made even closer through scenic design by Allen Smith which narrows the playing space to a small area downstage. The back features an upstage wall of black words on oversized white sheets of paper that seem to disintegrate into the air and fly away from the right side of the space. Black and white tile flooring similarly dissipates in the same direction, a parallel to the dissolution of the mind caused by Alzheimer’s. Savannah Garlick’s lighting design adds texture to the paper wall and uses color on a cyclorama set well back from the defined playing space to support the emotions evoked throughout the play.
Director Morag Shepherd’s staging is simple yet eloquent in its efficiency. There are several phone conversations between the two sisters in which she allows the actors to see and even touch one another, thus blurring the lines between space and time, much like the frayed edges within their mother’s mind. She uses such conventions to efficiently move from one place to another, keeping the pace of a potentially slow script from dragging. As touching as Jensen’s script is, the plot is not very directional nor structured—it has a tendency to meander towards the inevitable end. Yet when we arrive there, I wasn’t quite sure we were at the end at all.
The show is listed as 85 minutes without an intermission online, but the digital program revises that down to 65. By my watch the play ran for just over 60. But the show’s brevity certainly isn’t a deterrent as it leaves time to contemplate the production’s themes of grief, love, messy relationships and loss well after the curtain call.
Much like the Wagner Black Box Theatre, PYGmalion itself is a lesser known Jewell in the Salt Lake Arts community that deserves greater attention. Last Lists is a compelling and heartrending production that is well worth discovering.