Try to Remember, written and directed by R. David Stephens, premieres Sept. 10 at Pal Studio Theatre, 581 Cardero Street 8th Floor as part of the 2019 Fringe Festival. Vancouverfringe.com
For family members with a strong denial mechanism, the disease first manifests as a series of unrelated mishaps.
Playwright and actor R. David Stephens remembers visiting his elderly parents in southern California and seeing a soapy torrent seeping from the dishwasher. It wasn’t necessarily a sign of dementia. Somebody had just filled the dishwasher with laundry detergent instead of dish soap.
“My mother would always say, ‘That’s the cleaning lady,’” he recalls.
But there were little things that always seemed to be missing. There was tinfoil in the microwave.
“I’m not really sure if my mother knew that she had dementia,” Stephens reflects.
And even if she knew, she might not have admitted it – especially if she knew what else she was going to lose.
Stephens’ mom had been behind the wheels of cars and trucks since she was a 12-year-old kid growing up in small-town Colorado. But after three quarters of a century on the road, she flunked her written driver’s test.
It was catastrophic, Stephens says. And much like the overflowing dishwasher or the tinfoil in the microwave, not easily admitted.
In California, a driver needs to pass the written test before being allowed to take the road test. But because his mother didn’t take her road test, she reasoned she hadn’t failed.
“She was not about to give up that car,” Stephens says.
Following “some valiant efforts” by his father, it fell to Stephens to wrest the keys away from the woman who gave him life.
There are bumper stickers that read: Of All The Things I’ve Lost, I Miss My Mind the Most. But when dementia progresses, many people hide it, either out of confusion or a sense of humiliation, Stephens says.
There’s also the impact on those loved ones who try to cope and those who can’t.
“It kills families,” Stephens says bluntly. “It was the death of my father as well as the death of my mother.”
His parents were together for 75 years. His dad worked as an optometrist and his mom sold eyeglasses to the patients.
“He ruled the office and she ruled the home,” Stephens says. “He had always been taken care of very nicely by her.”
His father was accustomed to having his meals prepared and his laundry done. But after a decade of watching his wife’s decline as well as seeing the tasks that would now fall to him, his dad opted to stop taking his diabetes medicine.
He said he’d lived a good life. He didn’t see much reason for staying around, Stephens says.
It was hard for Stephens to lose his parents. But what stayed with him was watching his mother at the end and knowing that millions of people end their lives without being able to talk or feed themselves, sometimes for years.
It’s no kind of life, he reflects.
“We know how to bring life into this world; we’re really pretty good at it,” he says. “We just don’t know how to usher it out with any kind of grace.”
That thought percolated in his mind for years until he found himself at the 2016 Fringe Festival after co-writing Trump the Musical with Jacques Lalonde. (The show also featured actor and NDP mainstay Michael Charrois playing Ted Cruz and Lucifer.)
One night, Stephens watched a dance piece that dramatized a mother’s struggle with dementia.
“After the show, I thought, ‘Gee, I don’t really have a sense of who his mother was.’”
Stephens wanted to see the impact of dementia on the family. Essentially, he wanted to see the story he would tell.
“That was the genesis,” he says. “I’ve been trying to get into the Fringe ever since.”
Reached two weeks before the show’s premiere, Stephens is trying to get in “a little more extra rehearsal.”
The stress is understandable given the arduous journey Stephens underwent bringing the play to life.
Stephens crafted a non-linear theatrical experience with multi-media elements, direct appeals to the audience, a cognitive test, drama, humour, socio-political content and dancing.
“You have to have a great sense of patience and a great sense of humour to deal with this condition,” he says.
But finding a cast who were willing and able to join Stephens on his journey had its challenges.
Stephens initially cast “age appropriate actors” as his parents. It didn’t go well.
His first choice to play his mother quit after expressing concern she wouldn’t be able to remember her lines. The actor who was to play Stephens’ father resigned via email.
“I thought, ‘Oh my god he’s internalized the character,’” Stephens recalls. “[He did] just what my father had done: he had decided to opt out of the experience of being in our family.”
Faced with the possibility of either postponing the performance or rewriting the script to turn it into a one-man show, Stephens resorted to buttonholing actors at auditions, looking for anyone who might be able to play his father.
There was one actor who said he couldn’t be in the play because he was losing his house. Another, that he was losing his mind. A theatre director supplied Stephens a list of possible actors, including one who was dead.
“It’s been a harrowing experience,” he laughs.
But you need to trust that the right people will find their way to the show, he says.
The right people turned out to be David C. Jones and Jackie Minns.
While it was a “little bit of a mind-bend” to go with younger actors, he found Jones and Minns each brought new dimensions to the characters.
For Stephens, theatre – when it’s at its best – is laughter and tears and a few thoughts that lingers after the theatregoers file out of the world of make believe.
There is medically assisted dying for British Columbians with incurable or irreversible diseases and for people living with what is deemed intolerable suffering, Stephens notes. But before dying they must offer “informed consent.”
Given the millions who suffer with diseases that may prohibit their ability to give that consent, Stephens believes it’s imperative we look at the ending we all know is coming.
“How much control do we have over it, or not have over it?” he asks.
We all have to leave eventually but maybe, Stephens reasons, we can do it with a little grace.