Winter at SLAC: If you see one play about Dementia and Dying this Year...
by Jeremy Pugh, October 25, 2016 Salt Lake Magazine
When the curtain dropped on Winter—an original play by Salt Lake Acting Company’s resident playwright, Julie Jensen—it seemed that myself and the rest of the house had come down with a case of the sniffles, winter being the cold and flu season after all.
Man. This play really got to me. I mean it wasn’t like I had planned for a night out where I was engulfed by memories of my grandmother. Stupid theater.
But then again the 80-minute production does pass through some pretty tough material. Namely, the descent of its principal character into dementia and her decision to take her own life before the metaphorical winter erases her. You know. Stuff like that.
But despite this rough road, the production is defiantly light, clear, cogent and beautiful thanks to the fine work of its lead actor, Anne Cullimore Decker.
Decker’s character, Annis, is a retired academic with a whiplash tongue and joyful wit who is beginning to suffer the early stages of dementia. She rages against the disease and also against her husband Robeck (played by Bob Nelson) as well her sons Evan (Justin Bruse) and Roddy (S.A. Rogers) who all seem to know better.
“Nursing homes are full of mindless people who have all said, ‘I will not live like that. I will not be one of them’. And, yet, there they are,” she fires.
Moreover, she and her husband, who is also growing dotty, had made a pact to end their lives together. But he is going back on the deal—still obsessed with his life’s work (something with science and mice). Annis, it seems, must go it alone.
She finds alliance with her semi-delinquent granddaughter LD (Andrea Peterson) and acquiescence from her stoner son Evan who is the laid back yin to her other son Roddy’s type-A yang. The play heads where you imagine but along the way we get to know Annis who walks us through a canny discussion on what it means to live and die.
Annis is a rich character well written and well defined by Jensen, a sophisticated cocktail of mischief, madness, fear and tenderness. She’s funny too. She plays with words and pokes fun at her husband, sons and granddaughter with a sharp wit and keen eye for bullshit. Armed with Jensen’s lines, Decker gives us warm portrait of strong, willful matriarch who has been in control of her life and it has been a life well lived.
Further evidence of this comes in designer Dennis Hassan’s set, which offers us the very picture of a bookish couple’s cozy front room. Tidy, lived in and lived-in well, director Tracy Callahan uses Hassan’s set to mark Annis’ decent. As the play moves along, the set descends into disorder and, with each lapse Annis experiences, winter, complete with aspen trees, slowly invades the warm room.
And of course, bloody of course, Annis reminded me of my own grandmother, damn-it all. I was completely caught off guard. I mean who doesn’t have to drag their feet a little to go see a play on dementia and dying? But I just figured it would be the standard maudlin, “rage rage against the dying of the light” sort of thing. But this was actually good. And there she was, my grandmother, gone now nearly two decades, on that stage personified by Decker and Jensen’s Annis. Stupid dumb play.
Go see plays. Go see this play. Oh. And take your mother or father. It might just jump start a conversation you’ve been putting off.
At 3:30 pm. on Saturday afternoon, Nov. 5, SLAC will present a panel discussion, “Death and Dignity,” exploring the issues contained in the play.
Winter runs through Nov. 13, 2016 at Salt Lake Acting Company. Get your tickets here.