Thursday, November 22, 2007

Madness Takes Its Toll

The United Negro College Fund's campaign stresses the idea that "a mind is a terrible thing to waste." I recently attended a performance of Aaron Sorkin's court martial drama, A Few Good Men, in which a young attorney (played by Tom Hulce) must defend two intensely macho Marines who are up against a murder charge. A solid piece of writing which has been fine-tuned under Don Scardino's stage direction, Sorkin's new play bravely exposes the worst excesses of military brainwashing.

After the performance, when the woman next to me asked if I had enjoyed the play, I answered "Very much so. In fact, it made me extremely proud that on the day I went for my draft physical I had the courage to check off the box marked 'Homosexual Tendencies' and protect my brain from the military."

I was lucky. A fortuitous combination of perverse politics, cowardice, Gay instinct and deviant sexuality prevented me from sacrificing my imagination -- the most sacred part of a writer's being -- to the corruption and destruction which would have resulted from being exposed to a force as evil, monolithic and insidious as military thinking (an oxymoron if ever there was one).

Those of us whose friends have suffered from AIDS-related dementia know how awful it is to witness a healthy, vibrant and creative mind short-circuit and self-destruct. When the Portland Opera announced plans to produce the world premiere of a black comedy about an Alzheimer's patient trying to commit suicide, many an eyebrow arched in cultural disbelief. Perhaps the toughest challenge posed by the creators of Lucy's Lapses is accepting their darkly comedic treatment of a crisis-ridden family trying to cope with the chaos created by an Alzheimer's victim run amok.


If opera, as an art form, is to become relevant to today's audience, then it must tackle some of the problems currently faced by society. Regional theater and/or opera companies would do well to follow the Portland Opera's example of producing Lucy's Lapses as a way to help their local Alzheimer's support groups do more effective consciousness-raising work about this tragic disease.

"The dramatic key to Lucy's Lapses is that audiences don't go to hear La Boheme because it's an opera about tuberculosis any more than they buy tickets to La Traviata because it's an opera about consumption," argues composer Christopher Drobny. "If the disease itself is not the factor that's going to fuel this opera, then the dramatic conflict has to come from Lucy's realization and acknowledgment that her situation is never going to get better -- and that she has to find a way to commit suicide."

Like many Alzheimer's victims Lucy (who only wants to eat hot dogs and hot fudge sundaes) is rapidly regressing and showing signs of adolescent behavior. Her household is in a total state of denial with regard to her symptomatology. In many ways, Lucy's family puts the Simpsons to shame.

Husband Biff is the high school football coach who wishes this were not happening just before the season playoffs. Daughter Carrie (a former Miss Oregon) considers her mother's bizarre behavior a threat to her status as the local beauty queen. Son Danny is a pyromaniac who, pushed to his own breaking point by the frustration of watching his mother's mental deterioration, has blown up the local high school.

When the curtain rises on Act I we find Lucy, wired with dynamite, attempting to bust her son out of jail. With her libido raging out of control, she soon embarks on a torrid affair with Biff's star quarterback (and Carrie's boyfriend), Beau. In one of her more misguided attempts to commit suicide, Lucy sticks her head into an electric oven. Later, when she ties a noose around her waist and tries to hang herself from a chandelier, she can't figure out why she hasn't gone to heaven and met God.

"Assuming you have a younger audience who can't identify with Alzheimer's disease, the idea of a black comedy about such a disorder would not appear to be offensive at the outset. But an awful lot of people who attend opera are in their forties or fifties," warned Dr. Jerome Goldstein (a Board-certified neurologist and Associate Clinical Professor of Neurology at UCSF) when I interviewed him for an article about Lucy's Lapses in American Medical News. "It's a bit like putting on an incontinent piece of performance art in Des Moines. Since the majority of Alzheimer's takes place with patients in their sixties, people in that age bracket will be recognizing the fact that Alzheimer's could indeed happen either to them or to a member of their family. With a disease that is so prevalent, you may indeed offend large groups of your audience."


After attending the preview (a benefit for the Columbia-Willamette chapter of the Alzheimer's Association) and opening night performances of Lucy's Lapses, I'm happy to report that this new opera offered a surprisingly good time in the theater. There were plenty of solid laughs to be found in Laura Harrington's action-packed libretto. Shawn Kerwin's droll unit set and delightful costumes gave the production a tremendous sense of 1950s period style. Due to its constantly changing tempos and sly period stylization, Drobny's music sounded like a cross between jazz, Sondheim, lyric opera and piano bar music written for low camp lounge lizards. Paulette Haupt conducted the Portland Opera's eight-piece ensemble with an acute understanding of the score's relevance to the action transpiring onstage.

Soprano Meg Bussert delivered a bravura performance as Lucy, with strong support coming from John Leslie Wolfe's Biff, Michael Curran's pragmatic Danny and Rebecca Baxter's deliciously droll and insipid Carrie. Although director-choreographer Kelly Robinson did a fine job of communicating the anxiety within Lucy's mind, the audience had a hard time matching the speed at which Lucy's thought processes kept deteriorating (and her stalwart determination to commit suicide) with any concept of normalized time.

Some reviewers had trouble categorizing Lucy's Lapses. "Is it an opera?" they asked. "A pseudo-opera?" Who cares! Lucy's Lapses is an amusing, entertaining and genuinely moving piece of opera/music theater which evokes a tremendous amount of sympathy for its protagonist. Once you've witnessed Lucy's family send her off in style to the tune of Drobny's hilarious "Tango To The Tub," you can't help loving the woman and admiring Lucy's incredibly brave decision to take control of her fate. The final scene of Lucy's Lapses (in which the heroine sits peacefully perched on a swing as she looks down on her family from the afterlife) is especially poignant.

I found this new opera to be a unique and especially worthwhile adventure in music theater. I'm sure that if you had been at its premiere you, too, would have admired Lucy's guts.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 21, 1990.

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