Chicago — It’s rare for a theater season to go by without at least one play about Alzheimer’s (or more accurately, dementia) hitting the boards. But most of them focus on adult children dealing with afflicted parents. Professional caregivers, if they appear, do so as generic supportive angels—a passing shoulder to cry on that dispenses Chicken Soup for the Grieving Soul.
Well, that’s not what John Michael Colgin (who performs sans surname) has on his menu. In Dementia Me, Colgin, who recently relocated from Dallas to Chicago, recounts the two years he spent as an aide in a “memory care center.” That seems at first to be a rather Orwellian way of describing an old folks’ home. But as the hour-long solo show unfolds, it’s clear that caring for memories is precisely what Colgin has in mind—his own and those of the patients that he learns to love. Even when they’re handing him pieces of “chocolate” that turn out to be, um, something else.
Also, he’s now working with balloons. No, he’s not making animals out of them. But they do become the supporting players at the care center.
That element at first seems gimmicky and a way of awkwardly shoehorning in the (quickly abandoned) framing device. As the piece opens, the audience members become guests at a 90th birthday party for Jean-Luc, a resident of the center who doesn’t know that it’s his birthday. The binary faces of dementia—childlike glee and abject terror—appear etched by Sharpie markers on the balloon-residents. As residents die, including the gregarious one-time poet, Wilde (“not like the playwright,” he tells Colgin on one of his more with-it days), they deflate. It’s an obvious but undeniably effective device.
But what’s it like on days when they aren’t dying? As Colgin describes it, “It’s like being in an episode of Looney Tunes and not being animated. It’s like being in an episode of Pee-wee’s Playhouse and not being gay.”
For those that don’t know, Colgin is gay. But this isn’t a coming-out piece. That process happened long before Dementia Me took shape, though his ability to hang onto a relationship does figure into the arc of the narrative. Colgin engages in a fair amount of scatology and sexual content. (One family at opening night took off before the end, causing Colgin to deadpan “It’s because I showed my butt, isn’t it?”)
What hits home with greatest force is the growing sense of grief and loss and how one can choose to either be isolated in those feelings or use them as a bridge to greater understanding. Which may sound rather Chicken Soup, come to think of it. But Colgin’s lacerating truthful wit, which he points in his own direction as often as he targets others, keeps it from feeling like a Hallmark Hall of Fame exercise in cheap sentiment.
While Colgin mocks one well-dressed Dallas matron who does a drive-by visit of her afflicted mother, there’s also a running motif of him coming home drunk and ignoring messages from his own mom. Those late-night interludes also bring him face to face with the John Michael of the future—a growling satyr-like creature in balloon form who seems perfectly at ease with his own diminished mental faculties. This fanciful element feels a bit strained. It’s more interesting to see what the Colgin in front of us is figuring out about himself, without the time-traveling geezer’s help.
We also meet “Boss Bob,” who centers John Michael during his more panicked workplace moments by making him focus and breathe in and out with him. It seems a little ridiculous at first, to us and to John Michael.
But as the show progresses, he learns that the act of breathing—the very act required for both balloons and humans to achieve their fullness—is sometimes all we have left when memories fade. Though still a young man, Colgin dredges up some tough love, excoriating self-revelation and finally some bittersweet knowledge to send this maiden voyage in Chicago aloft.
» Kerry Reid is a freelance theater critic in Chicago
» Read an interview with John Michael on HollywoodChicago.com