IOWA CITY — At intermission, the woman next to me said what I was about to say to her: “This is my life.”
Afterwards, she was in tears and I was fighting back mine. A mutual friend introduced us Friday night, and who knows when or if we’ll see each other again. But for two hours, we were united in the shared experiences of “The Broken Chord,” onstage through Sunday (4/14) at the Englert Theatre.
This is another brilliant Hancher commission by Working Group Theatre, a small professional troupe of the highest achievement. Time and again, founders Sean Christopher Lewis, Jennifer Fawcett and Martin Andrews have gathered their colleagues to cast light on the shadows swirling around us all.
Theater originated to educate audiences through artistic expression — to present complex issues in a way the masses could understand. That is exactly what the Working Group cast and crew have done with the world of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
To call them “actors” seems inadequate. Their specialty is illumination through immersion in some of the most difficult situations facing society today, from Michigan’s crumbling auto industry in “Rust” to race relations in last year’s Hancher commission, “Mayberry.”
They spent a year researching Alzheimer’s disease through the eyes of patients, their families, medical professionals and caregivers. Several of the actors trained as hospice workers, to provide bedside comfort through patients’ final days.
They met with panels of health care professionals, shared their project with students across a wide variety of disciplines at the University of Iowa, conducted storytelling workshops with patients and presented mountains of material to playwright Fawcett.
Their deep, deep delving now sings with the utmost beauty onstage — a poetic ballet of heartbreaking humanity that brought the opening night audience to laughter, tears, gasps, silence and a most deserved standing ovation.
Every aspect of this show is elegant, with director Lewis seamlessly weaving theatrical devices into a rich tapestry that flutters and envelops the audience into the action.
Objects and poles and sails fly in and out, creating scenery real and unreal, sometimes stopping overhead, other times engulfing the characters. Gorgeous music captures the very essence of every mood, from harrowing to humorous, anxious to exhilarating. And the lighting. So stark one moment, so perfect in another, as delicate tubes and twinkle lights take us into the fragile realm of sweet memories.
The main story involves two adult children tearing themselves apart trying to join forces in caring for their stricken mother. This new mission reopens old wounds and their frustration is palpable.
On the periphery is a Greek chorus of actors who present other common scenarios — the husband of a wife with early-onset Alzheimer’s, a chaplain reaching out to physically and spiritually touch the afflicted, an older wife clinging to a lifetime of memories, and adult children on very different, yet similar paths.
All of the performances are stellar, but Saffron Henke is utterly magnificent as the mother, Helen, a Ph.D. archivist — a preserver of memories who cannot stop her own from slipping away. We see and feel her transformation, her anguish and her frailty every step of the way. Tim Budd and Kristy Hartsgrove Mooers sweep us into their journey through sibling anger, resentment, frustration, unity, resignation and acceptance.
Dancer Elizabeth June Bergman brings fluidity to the churning emotions, like a delicate music box dancer embracing an invisible partner, cradling a child or cradling memories, savoring their touch. The other actors follow her lead, in moments charming and sweet.
This is an experience not to be missed. It will stay with you long after the lights dim and the memories fade.
What: Hancher presents “The Broken Chord,” by Working Group Theatre
Where: Englert Theatre, 221 E. Washington St., Iowa City
When: 7:30 p.m. April 13; 2 p.m. April 14, 2o13
Tickets: $10 to $35 at the door or Hancher.uiowa.edu