Kim Carney’s Moonglow is a heart wrenching, true-to-life story about the effects of Alzheimer’s on patients and their families. 3rd Act Theatre Company reopens after a COVID-19 related hiatus to close out their first season with this beautiful production. Set in a Dementia and Alzheimer’s fulltime care home, Moonglow centers on Maxine and Joe, two mental health patients in the facility.
The play begins with a young girl dancing in her room, while two women swarm around her. They’re unpacking her things and getting everything in order. Business-like, but the girl pays them no mind. She talks about dances, music, and boys. Every typical thing a young woman would be preoccupied with. But then one of the women refers to her as “Mama” and it’s clear that she’s not as young as she sees herself at this moment. An older, calmer woman steps onto the stage as The Girl continues to ramble on, skipping and rehearsing her dance. This woman begins to recite The Girl’s dialogue along with her, simultaneously, while slowly approaching The Girl. When they’re next to each other, The Girl steps away and exits, leaving the older, white-haired grandmother in her place.
This is how it is for the mind of an Alzheimer’s patient. One minute they’re carefree, sock-hopping and sparkling, swinging ponytails and chattering on about the future. The next they’re realizing their future doesn’t exist, they’re not young, their troubles are many, and they’re slipping away from everyone they’ve ever loved. Many times, spouses are revealed to have died long ago, children are grown, and they have to rediscover the harsh reality of their lives over and over.
Jackie Smola is the older version of Maxine, who she is when she’s present and lucid. The Girl is portrayed by Lauren Peña. They are two versions of the same person, and each captures the complexity of such a brutal illness with their wide range of emotions. Smola does some heavy lifting, coming to terms with her present reality and dealing with anger and fear as those realities hit harder and harder. Smola expresses a deep shame when she comes back from each episode, hating her disease and the card fate has dealt her. Peña likewise carries a weight. She portrays a woman long gone, who may have existed at one time, but doesn’t any more. Like a living ghost, the audience knows she can’t stay, and every moment she’s there means that Maxine is slipping further away. They’re both commendable performers, showing the truth, and beauty, of a painful journey.
Joe is portrayed similarly, in the present by Rob May, and in the past by Dakota Lee Bryant. May is first seen sitting on a couch, watching TV while Peña sits next to him. She asks him to dance, and suddenly he’s taken back to his own past. Bryant enters as the young Joe, and in the past he’s a Sailor and a talented dancer. Bryant twirls and spins, a spotlight highlighting beautiful lines and casting a haunting glow over this memory. As Bryant takes over, May exits, and again we’re left with the person Joe thinks he is in the moment.
This transition happens several times throughout the show. Maxine and Joe slip back and forth from the past to the present, all the while being portrayed by two actors each. It could easily get confusing, but director Don Taylor has designed a beautiful show that is not hard to follow.
Bryant as The Sailor is very present and real. He’s pure of heart and truly an honorable man. As the character transitions and May takes over, those qualities remain. May and Bryant are brilliant, nuanced actors, and this character couldn’t be put in better hands. May speaks with emotion and it’s enough to bring the audience to tears.
May and Smola together are pure magic. When Maxine and Joe find each other, they quickly form a bond that transcends time and circumstance. Often the suffering of Alzheimer’s makes it seem like a terrible journey, one fraught with confusion and shame, and it is. But there’s also beauty. As Maxine and Joe get to know each other, they’re simultaneously grappling with a disease that’s taking their short and long-term memories away. But their bond is powerful, and as a result, they slip into a world that is wholly their own. While Joe is not really Maxine’s ex-husband Bob, and Maxine not his dead wife Teresa, to them, in that moment, it doesn’t matter. They have each other and that’s all that matters.
May and Smola dance together, to an old song called “Moonglow”. It’s nostalgic and heartbreaking, but it’s perfect. Who needs reality when they’re happy and together in their imaginary one? Memories are reality to the mind, and in this case, reality is memories.
On the outside of this reverie are their children. Grown and dealing with their own lives, they struggle with guilt over putting their parents in the care facility. Rosemary Orwig Rogers is Maxine’s daughter Diane. Chris Briscoe is Joe’s son Greg. Rogers is a caring daughter. She’s patient and protective of her mother, but her emotions run high and powerful. Rogers conveys the longing every child must feel as they watch their parent slowly disappear. Rogers is a powerful presence on stage, full of heart and compassion. She’s guilty at times, hopeful, desperate, and even hysterical. She feels and conveys every emotion, often in a single scene, in this convincing and adept performance.
Briscoe as Greg is quite relatable, even when he’s making tough choices. Greg is worried and scared for his father, and often resorts to scare-tactics and threats, even manipulation. Briscoe takes a would-be villain and refines him into something much more complex. He’s outwardly confident, but inwardly falling apart. Briscoe and Rogers have fire between them. They’re fighting against each other, but they’re on the same team. They both want to hold onto parents they know they’re losing. There’s no other bond like that. Briscoe is bold, a smooth and polished performer with a rough edge of emotion just below the surface.
Mikie Gillmore is Benita, the caretaker and head nurse at the long-term care facility. Gillmore is patient and long-suffering. She brings understanding and peace to a situation where there is little to be found. Gillmore spars well when the patients get belligerent and holds her own when their families do the same. Any caretaker can see themselves in her, and she does justice to this often-complicated role. Caretakers too get attached. They too have feelings and lives. They too are powerless against an unforgiving disease.
Alzheimer’s patients are often fearful, angry, and confused. They live between two worlds- things that are happening in the present, and the remembered events of decades past. They often don’t recognize their own children or spouses. As the disease progresses, they return to lucidity and the present moment less and less. Alzheimer’s cruelly steals not just the future, but the present and the past from those who suffer from it. Adding to that pain is that families have to stand by and watch, powerless to prevent it while they lose their loved ones by inches every day.
Moonglow does not mince words. There’s no silver lining or fairytale cure. But there is hope, and happiness. It sheds a glowing light on a painful disease. Losing a loved one is never easy, no matter how it happens. Whether you lose them bit by bit, or suddenly, or unexpectedly. It’s a unique pain.
I lost my father to suicide in March of this year, and this is the first play I’ve reviewed since. I’m so thankful that my long-awaited return to the theatre was for Moonglow. It gave me a much-needed sense of peace, and is sure to bring some healing and comfort to those who have ever loved, and certainly to those who have lost.
3rd Act’s Season closer Moonglow runs until June 28th. The performance on the 28th is online only. Social distancing and strict safety measures are in place to adhere to the CDC’s guidelines regarding COVID-19. For more information on tickets and their upcoming season POWER, visit 3rdacttheatreco.com.