Saturday, September 22, 2012

Mind The Gaps

Years ago, my aunt Joan and uncle Irving were visiting my parents when Joan (who was in the early stages of Alzheimer's disease) said "I used to have a brain." The onset of adult dementia is often an insidious process that happens in such small steps that it's easy to overlook.

A decade later, when my mother (who loved to read) started showing early signs of Alzheimer's, one of the most painful symptoms for her was the realization that she could no longer read the newspaper because she could not connect many printed words to their meaning. When adult-onset dementia starts happening to someone you live with (or are close to), their initial symptoms of forgetfulness can easily be mistaken for what's been happening to lots of friends in their peer group.
  • Sometimes the person whose mind is showing early signs of deterioration has been remarkably adept at finding ways to compensate or "cover" for periodic lapses in memory.
  • Others, not wanting to face reality, resort to blanket denials that dementia may be a growing factor in their lives (in his book, My Father at 100, Ron Reagan suggested that President Reagan was showing early signs of Alzheimer's disease while in the White House).
Although a growing literature of film and staged dramas depict families torn apart by the effects of Alzheimer's disease, this particular form of mental illness has been remarkably egalitarian in its choice of victims.  Like AIDS, Alzheimer's crosses every boundary of race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Nor does it discriminate between people of average intelligence and those who have been leaders in their field.

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While scientists involved in the field of artificial intelligence have been working toward AI applications that can help an aging population, the Japanese seems to have made the most progress with caretaker robotsJake Schreier's mischievous geriatric romp, Robot & Frank, offers a heady mixture of comedy and pathos as an aging cat burglar (Frank Langella) realizes he can train a robot to do the nimble dirty work which his aging mind and body can no longer handle with the speed and reliability required to pull off a heist.

Frank's ongoing problems with boredom, lonelinesskleptomania, and the insidious onset of dementia have become a growing source of concern for his children. His son, Hunter (James Marsden), is a successful attorney who doesn't always have time to check up on his father. Having just returned from a trip to Turkmenistan, Frank's guilty daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler), arrives needing more attention than she is capable of giving.

Frank Langella and Liv Tyler in Robot & Frank

Meanwhile, curious changes are happening in town. The local library is undergoing major renovations which will transform it into a tech center.  Led by an obnoxious yuppie named Jake (Jeremy Strong), a generation of nouveau riche has taken over the town's social life. The sexy librarian, Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), is about to lose her job.

Old habits die hard. When Jennifer invites Frank to a benefit for the library, he's insulted by Jake's condescending attitude but instantly aroused by the jewelry on display.  While Jake's house may not hold a candle to the Topkapi Museum, Frank quickly grasps a new application for the annoying caretaker robot that his son has delivered.

Frank Langella stars in Robot & Frank

In an op-ed piece published in The New York Times entitled The Flight From ConversationSherry Turkle wrote:
"I am a partisan for conversation. Face-to-face conversation unravels slowly. It requires patience. In conversation we tend to one another. We can attend to tone and nuance. In conversation, we are called upon to see things from another’s point of view. But in today’s workplace, young people who have grown up fearing conversation show up on the job wearing earphones. A 16-year-old boy who relies on texting for almost everything says almost wistfully, 'Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.'

I spend the summers at a cottage on Cape Cod. For decades, I walked the same dunes that Thoreau once walked. Not too long ago, people walked with their heads up, looking at the water, the sky, the sand, and at one another, talking. Now they often walk with their heads down, typing. Even when they are with friends, partners, children, everyone is on their own devices. Why would we want to talk about love and loss with a machine that has no experience of the arc of human life? Have we so lost confidence that we will be there for one another? 
One of the most haunting experiences during my research came when I brought one of these robots, designed in the shape of a baby seal, to an elder care facility.  An older woman began to talk to it about the loss of her child. The robot seemed to be looking into her eyes. It seemed to be following the conversation. And the woman was comforted."
The inability to be physically present in the life of a loved one cannot always be solved by the presence of a caretaker robot. As Robot & Frank makes abundantly clear, the ability to delegate work to a robot can easily be abused by a lonely curmudgeon with a criminal mind.

Christopher D. Ford's script for Robot & Frank contains some delicious snarls and twists as well as painful truths about a parent's growing inability to take care of himself. Although Ana Gasteyer, and Jeremy Sisto have some nice cameos, the real action takes place within Frank’s mind. Here's the trailer:

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Needless to say, control freaks have an especially difficult time with dementia. The more competitive and tightly wound they are, the more prone they may be to outbursts of aggressive behavior and paranoid ideation. The protagonist of Sharr White's achingly poignant drama, The Other Place, certainly fits the bill.

A research neurologist who has devoted the past 10 years toward developing a drug that can attack a rare form of dementia, Juliana Smithton (Henny Russell) is one tough cookie. As she prepares to address a group of doctors on a medical retreat in St. Thomas that is being underwritten by her pharmaceutical company, she knows all the tricks necessary to make the male physicians in attendance realize that she's the smartest person in the room.

Henny Russell in The Other Place (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

But then something happens that rattles Juliana and throws her off her game. She sees a young woman in a yellow bikini who seems to be paying close attention to her lecture. The woman's silent presence sparks Juliana's aggressive need to dominate a situation as well as her supercilious attitude toward someone who is younger, prettier, and could never be as smart as Juliana.

Accustomed to wrestling with her own ego, Juliana confesses early on that there have been "early glimmers" and, in a rather bizarre phone call to her estranged daughter, admits that she's had some kind of an "episode" and may even have brain cancer. As they say in many 12-step programs: "The first step is acknowledging that you have a problem."

Henny Russell in The Other Place
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Juliana's years of battling the male medical establishment make her a tough adversary for her oncologist husband, Ian (Donald Sage Mackay), whom she is sure must be seeking a divorce. Convinced that Ian's female colleague (Carrie Paff), a doctor attempting to perform an intake interview with Juliana, is the younger woman who is sleeping with her husband, Juliana doesn't hesitate to toy with the examiner over the minutiae needed to complete a simple form.

Donald Sage Mackay and Henny Russell in The Other Place
(Photo by:  Jennifer Reiley)

If the audience has been paying careful attention, they've noticed the changes in Juliana's voice from moment to moment. Through some careful sound engineering by Brandon Wolcott, Juliana can seem to be speaking in her normal voice, in a subtly enhanced voice (while lecturing other doctors), or having phone conversations with her daughter (who seems to be located far, far away).

Magic Theatre is currently presenting the West Coast premiere of The Other Place in a production that has been beautifully directed by Loretta Greco. As the playwright and director guide the audience through a sea of red herrings toward the terrifying moment when Juliana "bottoms out" and starts to grasp the severity of her problem, the multiple meanings of the play's title start to come into focus. As the playwright explains:
"It is human nature to most vehemently deny the truths we feel can harm us the most. Very few statements of hubris (or hard lines draw in the sand) go unpunished if you wait long enough. In this story, it seemed fitting to find the smartest woman in the world and slowly let her realize that nothing she knows is true. At its heart, this play is all about hubris punished; about a great person brought to her exact opposite position."
Carrie Paff and Henny Russell in The Other Place
(Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

While Henny Russell and David Sage Mackay give searing portrayals of two brilliant scientists rendered helpless by the ravages of mental illness, Carrie Paff gets to shine in a variety of supporting roles as "The Woman." Patrick Russell lends equally sturdy dramatic support as "The Man." As always, Loretta Greco's dramatic acuity allows her actors to breathe life (with all its imperfections) into their characters without ever overwhelming the script.

Audiences who enjoy the kind of psychological mysteries that get solved by pulling back one layer at a time will find plenty of clues to track in Sharr White's heart-rending drama. Those who have dealt with Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia in their private lives will probably be able to anticipate what lies ahead.  Performances of The Other Place continue at the Magic Theatre through October 7 (click here to order tickets).

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