As news broke this week of a major scientific development in the treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, Infinite Group’s production of Still Alice, airing at King’s Theatre, seems timely. Based on the hit novel and film of the same name, Still Alice is an honest exploration of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease that is devastating and heartening in equal measure.
Diagnosed at aged 50, when the fear consuming most women is the encroaching effects of menopause, the play explores how one woman deals with an extraordinary prognosis. Harvard professor, wife and mother of two children, Alice Howland grapples with the knowledge that the termination of her mind, body, and entire sense of self, is being cruelly, and irreversibly fast-tracked.
Rather than confine the play to the isolating, psychological aspects of the condition, Still Alice uses a small but resourceful cast to scrutinise the toll Alzheimer’s takes on one’s entire world; their family, friends and locale. The play probes into the depths of dementia, the darkened recesses of memory loss and cavities appearing in everyday routine to how new bridges are formed. In lieu of self-awareness, much else is to be found. For Alice, this comes in the strengthening of family bonds and an appreciation of life’s simplicities.
The play covers well-worn subject matter, as dementia’s debilitating decline is unfortunately a familiar fact of life for so many, yet the production’s artful use of staging keeps the audience captivated. The theatrical touch of projecting Alice’s consciousness as a separate being, who shadows Alice throughout the entire play, is an ingenious way of exploring her psyche that would otherwise be unattainable. The dialogue between actors Sharon Small (Alice) and Eva Pope (Herself) is faultless. The contradictions, mocking and nurturing of each other is an insightful take on a mind racked in chaos.
The set is subtly innovative, being cramped and cluttered with props at the beginning, but slowly emptying as the play progresses. Ending as a shell of its former self, it can be imagined as an analogy of Alice’s mind, cleared of memories. Without an interval, and with only a simple screen that charts the progress of time, Alice’s descent from trailblazing university professor to frail, infantilised woman is laid bare. It’s a tall order to play a character that undergoes radically different personality changes within a short 90 minutes, but Small executes it masterfully. Her ambivalence is most spectacular at the end of the play which, taking us up to the present moment, demands the audience to consider what is personhood when denied of all its history.
Still Alice doesn’t need to shock or provoke. Its compelling nature lies in its explicit honesty. The harrowing attack of dementia on one’s identity and its impact on one’s family is alleviated in parts with small glimmers of humour and optimism. References to contemporary culture, such as the use of mobile phones as memory facilitators, make the drama far more applicable to the experience of Alzheimer’s in the modern day.
Still Alice is a poignant, necessary story to experience as we hope scientists are closer than ever to finding an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s.
King’s Theatre, Edinburgh 25th-29th September 2018
Glasgow Theatre Royal 13th-17th November 2018
Image: Geraint Lewis