By Lauren Gunderson
Directed By Sean Daniels
Through March 10
Merrimack Repertory Theatre
Reviewed By Bobby Franklin
In The Heath, author Lauren Gunderson tells the story of her Paw Paw’s (grandfather) withdrawal from life due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease. It is also the story about the regrets she has in not having gotten to know him better. Using scenes from King Lear as well as playing the banjo and singing, we are presented with an original and fascinating look at life and aging.
Miranda Barnett plays Lauren and does so with complexity and depth. Lauren is filled with regret for not having had more conversations with her Paw Paw whose name is KD, and struggles to understand what has happened by reading King Lear. The set is split between a home and a heath. George Judge in the role of KD as well as Lear is touching, warm, and powerful. His voice shifts from a Southern accent to a naturalistic Shakespearean delivery seamlessly as the scenes move from the dialog between Lauren and KD to out on the heath as we watch Lear’s descent into madness.
While we often think of Lear as having gone mad, in The Heath we see it as being much more than that. Ms Gunderson shows how the diseases of an aging mind are not madness but a loss of self. She tells us, “They are lost before they are gone”. It is heart wrenching to witness a man who led a full life, who fought in Europe in WWII, raised a family, loved and was loved go to that place where he no longer knows anyone, even himself.
While at times Lauren comes across as self centered, she also does her best to reach out to KD. She learns to play the banjo because she remembered how he loved to listen to the music of Flatt and Scruggs. In addition to portions of some Gospel tunes, Ms Gunderson has also written a number of touching songs for the play. In Let It Be Me she asks “Who are we without the story?” It is the stories, the memories that are stolen from those suffering from dementia.
This is all pretty heavy stuff, and the realities are not glossed over here. Having said that, the play is not a downer. There is much to smile and laugh about as KD’s life is recounted through conversations with Lauren as well as projections onto the back of the set. She learns from going through old letters that her Paw Paw called her grandmother Sugar Babe. She remembers watching Atlanta Braves baseball games together and the fun they had. They also had some interesting conversations about religion, a topic they didn’t exactly see eye to eye on. Those differences lead to some funny exchanges between the pair.
The scenes where Mr. Judge assumes the role of Lear are stunning. He steps onto the heath and recites his lines which have been framed by KD’s story. In the final storm scene from Lear, Lauren takes on the part of the Fool, and in creating the last scene with Lear and Cordelia, she is the King’s youngest though she worries she may have been more like Goneril. The sound, the lighting, and the emotions are a theatre experience to remember. Ms Barnett and Mr. Judge deliver amazing performances on the MRT stage.
The Heath will touch everyone. It is a reminder that none of us gets out of life without suffering. That no matter how hard we try we will have regrets. It also tells us that our lives are filled with meaning and love, and it is up to us to strive to understand the gift we are given.
Don’t be afraid of the subject matter. You will be enriched by this story. Our lives are our memories. Throughout the play texts are displayed on the backdrop. One is, “You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing. – Luis Bunuel, My Last Sigh”
Don’t miss this production, it will touch you and help you to better understand the journey we are all on.