In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln spoke of “the mystic chords of memory” strong enough to stretch and bind a nation divided until its people would again sing in harmony.
But what happens when the chords of memory break into dissonance? When memories strong enough to light the corners of our minds fade into darkness?
Iowa City’s Working Group Theatre has devoted the past year to exploring the worlds of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, interviewing patients, their family members, caregivers, social services workers and medical professionals in the Corridor. Some members of the professional theater troupe even trained to became hospice workers, to deepen their research, understanding and experience.
The final product — “The Broken Chord” — will premiere April 12 to 14 at the Englert Theatre. The event is a Hancher commission, following on the heels of last year’s “Mayberry” commission, in which Working Group explored race relations in Iowa City.
With a similar theatrical structure, nine actors will embody various roles in this memory play, using a full gamut of raw emotions, dance, flying wisps of scenery and dramatic lighting and sound to cast light on a world that touches everyone in some way.
“Anyone who has ever cared for someone with dementia or had any relationship with someone who had a chronic illness will see themselves in the play and will learn something about both themselves and others who have gone through the same thing,” says Dr. Christopher Okiishi, 44, of Iowa City, a psychiatrist who walks in those worlds professionally, personally and as an actor in “The Broken Chord.”
- Hancher presents “The Broken Chord,” by Working Group Theatre
- Englert Theatre, Iowa City
- When: 7:30 p.m. April 12 and 13; 2 p.m. April 14
- Tickets: $10 to $35 at Hancher Box Office, (319) 335-1160, 1-(800) HANCHER or Hancher.uiowa.edu
- Artist’s website: Workinggrouptheatre.org
“People who come to this play will realize they’re not alone, which for me is particularly touching, because my grandmother (a psychologist) ran an Alzheimer’s caregivers’ support group for a number of years. It was one of the last professional activities she continued to maintain as she began struggling, herself, with forms of dementia,” Okiishi says.
“I don’t think anybody has escaped it. It’s out there in everyday life,” Chuck Swanson, Hancher’s executive director, says of Alzheimer’s disease. “It’s one of those issues that’s just tied so closely to the world.”
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, more than 5 million Americans are living with the disease, which is the sixth leading cause of death in the United States, and in 2012, 15.4 million family and friends provided 17.5 billion hours of unpaid care to people with Alzheimer’s and other dementias.
“People are touched by it, but not everybody is involved personally, so to be able to see and really observe what happens in a given situation will be eye-opening” for audience members, Swanson says. “The great power of theater is that we can really feel the difficulties and feel the strains and the day-to-day pressures that people have to deal with in a situation like this.”
The play, based on fact, follows a fictional storyline of a mother afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease and her two children “trying to figure out what to do with her,” says Working Group co-founder and actor Martin Andrews, 37, of Iowa City.
The mother figure is a composite drawn from all the stories presented to Working Group playwright Jennifer Fawcett to distill into a cohesive play structure. Director is her husband and collaborator, Sean Christopher Lewis. Their careers are rooted in creating socially responsible theater.
During the research phase, Working Group participants heard “stories over and over again about families falling apart because of this,” Andrews says. “I haven’t perfected this image (but) if it is a rope stretched out into a line, solving the problem should be going from Point A to Point B. You have all of these family members who can’t solve these problems because there are all these knots in the way — all the baggage that comes with being a human being in a family. When you have this crisis in the center of it, it all falls apart.”
But what Fawcett saw shining through the difficulties, obstacles, heartache and depression was a surprising spirit of resilience, laced with humor.
“I interviewed a woman in Cedar Rapids who nursed her husband through it,” says Fawcett, 38, of Iowa City. “He passed away a few years ago, and she’s amazingly positive and strong and wants to talk about it.”
Through such revelations, Fawcett saw time and again “what we as people are able to do when faced with the situation.”
She was amazed by “people who have had to deal with caring for a spouse or parent as if they were an infant, and doing that on a day to day to day to day to day basis, (can) still be able to laugh and be able to love them after all that.”
Those moments bring charm to the show.
“The play, in addition to being truthful about dementia in all its harrowing ways, is also surprisingly romantic,” Okiishi says, “in that many of the people that are in care-giving situations are caring for the loves of their life, and what that means to be with someone throughout the entirety of the experience.”
Particularly satisfying for Swanson is the way Hancher has been involved with the creative process in this project, taking the University of Iowa arts organization well beyond its usual, primary role of securing grants to cover about $60,000 in artists’ fees and presentation expenses for this show.
“Hancher’s been involved in close to 100 commissions,” Swanson says. “Part of our mission is commissioning new work, is giving artists the opportunity to create art. We want to keep art alive. The joy of being able to work with Working Group Theatre is that they’re right here.”
Hancher helped facilitate workshops that provided the actors with feedback from Alzheimer’s experts and audience members. The project also has taken Hancher and Working Group into UI classrooms, spanning the academic realms of rhetoric, social work, nursing, public health and the anthropology of aging.
“It’s so wonderful to be able to use the arts as a way enrich that classroom experience,” Swanson says, “then we get the students to come to the performances. That’s very important to what we do. … We want to make a difference in the lives of the students,” as well as the community.
Director Lewis is proud of the project and is looking toward its life beyond the Englert premiere.
“I’m hoping that it’s gonna be our coming-out party,” says Lewis, 35, of Iowa City. “The issues and themes of the play are so universal — I think it’s some of the best work that we’ve done, all the way around. It’s the most full realization of the documentary married to the stage poetry married to a visual life.”
Related: The Postcard Project — What is a memory you would not want to forget? Write it on a vintage postcard at The Java House, Home Ec. Workshop, The Haunted Bookshop, Oasis Falafel, Iowa City Senior Center, Prairie Lights and T-Spoons in Iowa City. Postcards will be displayed at the Englert and on social media.