In a culture that celebrates youth, a play that explores aging is risky, but it's a topic that touches us all. Margot Lasher's Intake looks at growing old as a journey with uncertainties, made both frightening and fascinating by the fact that perceptions are subject to doubt. Questions about what's real may only grow tougher if the mind itself changes with age. In Lasher's world, the psychiatric establishment offers little help, but animals and nature do.
The production in Lost Nation Theater's Winterfest series this past week was its premiere. Director Joanne Greenberg and producer Liz Snell worked with the Marshfield playwright to develop a full-length work from Lasher's original one-act.
Though 82-year-old Hannah's story includes speculation about diminished mental capacity, it also brims over with her love of the outdoors and her dogs. Hannah is very much alive, and more than a match for an unrealistically ill-trained psychologist, Dr. Grey, who attempts to evaluate her.
The tension in the play is not between the two characters but within Hannah's mind; she perceives a difference in her thinking. It's not as simple as losing something. It's a change, and might even be an appropriate aspect of her life's progress. But it's unsettling enough for her and others to wonder about, since she lives alone with two dearly loved dogs.
The first act takes advantage of the easy laughs that result when two people misunderstand each other while the audience remains one step ahead. In this case, the psychologist can't cope with Hannah's multiple meanings, ambiguity or natural leaps from the literal to the figurative. Last Saturday's audience gushed with laughter as the doctor managed to underestimate Hannah at every turn.
The characters initially emerge as stereotypes: The doctor is too easily flummoxed and the patient too self-possessed to fear anything the doctor will say or do. For too long, the play stays stuck in a search for superficial laughs based on miscommunication. No matter how much we relish seeing the doctor humiliated for infantilizing an older adult, little is at stake.
Act Two goes much deeper, with humor of the richest kind: born of experience and self-awareness. It begins with a monologue in which Hannah explores her doubts about her future. She worries about her mind, about outliving her older dog, Jake, and about Jake outliving her. As she describes the woods and animals around her house, we revel in her love and energy but fear for her, too. She is alone, and daring herself to ask very difficult questions.
"You can't commit suicide if you have a dog," Hannah realizes. Her two dogs might do their Lassie-like best to prevent it, as well as providing an emotional pull to keep her alive. Hannah's willingness to immerse herself in nature results in observations that limn the largest truths about life. Lasher not only describes animals well; she shows how connections to both the wild and the tame can enrich us. Our investment in Hannah comes from admiration for her purity, wit, steely realism and ability to love.
To describe her awareness of how her mind is changing, Hannah says she's had the experience of Jake listening to her with new clarity, with attention "as clear as ice." It's a chilling thought, on two levels. The delusional aspect is unsettling, but more so is Hannah's realization of the dream of profound communication with an animal. A dream like that can't come true. It would change the barrier between self and not-self. It would mean she couldn't trust her mind.
Hannah meets again with Dr. Grey, whose study of the old woman is fodder for a paper in which she poses a new theory of the aging brain that may advance her professionally. Lasher still burdens the doctor with ineptitude that is improbably excessive, yet the two characters are now past comic misunderstandings. Doctor and patient are beginning to exchange something. Hannah can describe her fears and doubts.
Greenberg's quiet direction — little movement and few props — keeps the focus on the characters, so the energy and pace must come from the performers. Greenberg's admirable willingness to get out of the way allows her actors to reveal nuances, and demands concentration from the audience.
The story is rarely told through action, but Greenberg's closing is exquisite and simple: Hannah leaves the clinic and walks outside past the window, headed toward an ambiguous future, which is underscored onstage by abstract lighting. By having Dr. Grey stand at the window watching her, as the audience does, Greenberg makes Hannah's journey heroic; our witnessing it confers on it the majesty that everyday life sometimes deserves.
Emme Erdossy is truly moving as Hannah. Her 82-year-old character shows a lack of self-consciousness that is one of the compensations for aging. Similarly, Erdossy doesn't watch herself but surrenders to the scene, and this confidence as an actor gives Hannah power as a character. She tackles the Act Two monologue with courage, letting its complexities unfold like new discoveries.
Alison Goyette has to blend Dr. Grey's shallow, inadvertent cruelty with her curiosity about Hannah. The script doesn't leave her much space for compassion or connection, so Goyette uses Dr. Grey's ambition as a lodestar. Goyette never undercuts her character's incompetence. She yields the stage and all the moral weight to Hannah. The best compliment the role allows her is that she can really take a punch. If the script placed her on an even intellectual footing with Hannah, their relationship might progress to give the play its missing middle.
A set designed by Snell places a magnificent, soaring set of windows behind the quotidian office of the clinic. The windows supply a suggestion of looking out and achieving a lifetime's perspective. Inside, the dull realism of office furniture and a crummy ballpoint pen give the series of intake questions a sad grounding in thoughtless professional cataloguing.
The loyalty of a dog is profound. But a faith that's deeper still is that of the brain to the self. Dementia begins with questions of how trustworthy the brain may be. It's at that harrowing halfway point that Hannah is poised — she's able to look backward and imagine what's to come. As we listen to her story, we're invited to think a little differently about the arc of aging. By giving a local playwright a chance to develop her work and giving voice to the often-marginalized elderly, the production demonstrates the power of theater to connect us.