Piece of Mind
nytheatre.com review by Jesica Avellone
August 12, 2006
In her playwright's note to Piece of Mind, Mary Crescenzo writes that the play "is based on my work as an arts facilitator/cultural worker using visual art, music, and movement with Alzheimer's patients." The resulting series of one-note monologues that neither teach the audience about the disease nor utilize any of these other art forms is therefore disappointing.
Piece of Mind has had previous productions and Crescenzo has great hopes for its future (her noble goal is for star-studded casts to use it as a fundraiser for the Alzheimer's Association), so I was surprised to find such a lack of variety in her script. The setting is vaguely described as "every Alzheimer's care facility." Patients tell stories about losing their memories; aides and family members talk of visiting loved ones who no longer recognize them. Rarely does the script stray from those premises, to the extent that is it difficult to tell one character from the next. Every monologue is saturated with the message that Alzheimer's is very sad. I would like to know when it's revelatory and funny, too.
To be fair, Crescenzo also writes that Piece of Mind was modeled after Spoon River Anthology and The Vagina Monologues, but the glaring difference between this work and those is that Edgar Lee Masters and Eve Ensler used their monologues to illuminate the common thread running through a great variety of people and experiences. Crescenzo's characters are all telling the same mournful story, with the exception of an aide who is written as so stereotypically gay as to be offensive, especially in a play purporting to inspire love and understanding.
Emmy Award-winning director Richard Manichello begins the play by having the audience listen to John Prine's "Hello in There" (ably sung by Crescenzo) in a blackout. The song is solemn and precious and that tone is embraced from the very beginning of the play, leaving Manichello no room to pepper the performances with anything but grief.
Don't get me wrong—the cast is exceptionally talented. Most of the actors play several characters, fully embodying each one and using every tool at their disposal to engagingly communicate their tales of woe. Every one of them also gives an anvil's weight and tortoise's pace to every sentence, so one can only assume they were directed to do so. The play seems to be 40% dramatic pause, leaving the observer hungry for a narrative arc. As such, I couldn't help but feel drawn to Tracey McAllister as Pauline, the only character whose Alzheimer's actually progresses throughout the play.
Crescenzo finally plays catch-up in the final monologue, delivered by the seemingly autobiographical Arts Facilitator character (played with patience and concern by Stella Wixson), describing all the beautiful, poignant contradictions of living amongst Alzheimer's patients. We must be told, because Crescenzo and Manichello never show us.
Going in, I knew very little about Alzheimer's. After seeing Piece of Mind, I have learned nothing but that it is sad. I should note that several members of the audience felt moved to give the show a standing ovation. Perhaps that support will inspire Crescenzo to shape this eulogy into a multi-faceted play.