Dallas — Steve Yockey’s Blackberry Winter is an unflinching look at one woman’s ordeal as the primary caregiver for a parent losing the battle with Alzheimer’s. Directed by Tina Parker as a part of the National New Play Network’s rolling world premiere at Kitchen Dog Theater, this play is actually more of an 80-minute monologue. It's part of the New Works Festival, this year presented in Undermain Theatre's underground space.
Karen Parrish enters as Vivienne Avery with the diamond plate visage of one whose only control over their predicament lies in their facial muscles. Maintaining this veneer helps keep the innumerable indignities from sinking too deep. With childish impetuosity, she refuses to open the letter from the nursing home that she suspects will signify her mother’s deeper descent. Though she’ll lecture us on the disease and tell stories of her life with her mother, she won’t open the letter.
By not opening it, the character keeps the next step at bay. By keeping it closed, the playwright keeps everything from moving forward.
Yockey has captured perfectly the frozen agony of his protagonist’s predicament. Parrish, for her part, establishes and maintains the psychosis-verging surface serenity of someone in that as-yet-unnamed stage of grief that precedes all of the others. It’s characterized by a compulsion for control. It may be midnight baking or excessive research or even creating a poetic creation myth for the unrelenting illness that is slowly destroying your loved one. It’s perfectly understandable for someone losing control in one area of their life to want to exert more of it in another.
Set designer Scott Osborne creates a subterranean neural network of weathered wood and hodge-podge pedestals that sprout like the truffles that Vivienne used to hunt with her mother. The tones and textures jive well with David Goodwin’s charming stop-motion projections that illustrate Vivienne’s creation myth. The backdrop is also available for lighting designer Suzanne Lavender to play with color washes when not in use for the projections, though the changes can be distracting.
But not as distracting as the two under-utilized actors upstage.
Director Parker has Parrish literally upstaged by a megawatt Martha Harms in a white fairy costume (she’s an egret) and a subversively sympathetic Rhonda Boutté blindfolded and bound at the wrists (a mole). They provide voices for the myth projections, but otherwise sit and try to blend in. In contrast to our storyteller whose main objective is trying to keep things from sinking in, these two have their work cut out not drawing focus. Though Parrish’s Vivienne is battle-hardened, the audience is not.
Playwright Yockey has drawn a bleak main character who has little more in her arsenal than sneers and derision as her response to the seismic loss of losing a parent, even before they’re actually gone. The audience can’t be blamed for looking for distraction during her perfectly portrayed but dramatically protracted torment.
If anyone could forgive us, Vivienne could.