By PAM HARBAUGH
Vivienne smiles. Determinedly. It is the brave front, the cheery facade in the face of a truth that tears your world apart. She says her “smile is made of granite.” This, in despite of the rocky terrain of her world. Vivienne continues. Her mother, she says, is not suffering from a disease, nor fighting it. No, she corrects herself. Her mother is “living with Alzheimers.”
It is the fragile center of Steve Yockey’s new play, “Blackberry Winter,” receiving a powerfully moving and artfully resonate interpretation at Orlando Shakespeare Theater.
The playwright has a strong voice in his exploration of contemporary issues. The last time we saw a work of Mr. Yockey’s at Orlando Shakes was in 2014 with the production of “Pluto,” his odd, fantastical look at violence and mental illness in suburban America. Now we consider another issue plaguing our contemporary lives — Alzheimer’s disease. But while “Pluto” had a large cast of disparate characters and a setting with everything, including the kitchen sink and a felled tree, “Blackberry Winter” is streamlined in concept and execution.
Small pedestals, numbering 13 (significantly, a baker’s dozen) sit on the stage. They mostly hold tiny remembrances of Vivienne’s mother. One pedestal has a collection of scarves, another has an iron, another a pair of scissors. One, down center, holds a big blue glass piggy bank into which Vivienne deposits a coin every time she lets go with an F-bomb.
Portrayed with exquisite acting artistry by Suzanne O’Donnell, this Vivienne is a woman with whom you want to spend time. She has an ironic sense of humor, intelligence, dedication and a passion for righteousness. She begs for her mother’s care to be “personal and individualized,” rather than dismissed by sanitized form letters. A woman who loves to bake, as her mother did, she recites a recipe for coconut cake as if it is a frantic incantation to make her world right again. “Sprinkle the coconut on it because concrete results matter,” she insists. Ms. O’Donnell is a wonder, flowing naturally from laughter and confidence to tears and anger. Her portrayal evolves, pulling you like a magnet into the heart of this Everywoman.
Hungry to know the reason for a disease that tangles the brain, Vivienne forms her own “creation myth” to explain why memories are lost in the woods. In come the characters, a White Egret (an exquisite Mindy Anders) and Gray Mole (a tender Kody Grassett) who act out the creation myth with the help of childlike illustrations projected onto the back of the stage.
Vandy Wood’s scenic design is beautifully minimal and advances the theme of life’s delicacy. Amy Hadley’s lighting design picks up the same. Britt Sandusky’s excellent sound design fills in the theatrical blank spaces. Each court innocent simplicity with a theatrical voice. So, too, director Michael Dove’s austere concept which allows not only Vivienne’s story to take center stage but also Mr. Yockey’s elegant diction.
Indeed, throughout the story, delicate images emerge. Vivienne recalls “sunlight spilling on the hands” of her mother as she baked bread, and how iodine would “fizz” on her skin, proving it was working. Then there are the woodland creatures’ elegant animal speech, repeated as if written in poetic free verse. This is not a Steve Yockey that was brutal and confrontational in “Pluto.” It is an honest voice and a tender voice, one that brings viewers into a shared experience. While you may be facing a crisis like this, you are reassured that you certainly are not alone. That you are very much connected to humanity.
The title “Blackberry Winter” perhaps refers to a seasonal anomaly when a cold snap occurs when blackberries are in bloom. The metaphor is an apt one — a denied harvest. But back to the beginning of the play…
Still smiling, Vivienne addresses the audience and invites people to leave if their trip to the theater is proving a bit more than was anticipated. And she means it.
But everyone stays. And everyone is better for it.
SIDE O’ GRITS: “Blackberry Winter,” a professional production, runs through Feb. 5 at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, 812 E Rollins St, Orlando, FL. $25 to $50. Discounts available to students and military. Call 407-447-1700 or visit OrlandoShakes.org.