Story: Lola is a wife, a mother and a journalist who has plenty to keep her busy. Nonetheless, she willingly signs on as a “social visitor” for an elderly man named Lenny. Once a week Lola pops by Lenny’s home to check in on him and hopefully make his lonely days just a little brighter.
That’s a challenge because octogenarian Lenny, who had enjoyed a productive career as a physician, now struggles to remember the most mundane things. Lenny suffers from dementia and is frustrated most, it seems, by his inability to get his TV remote control to work.
Lola knows about Lenny’s condition as well as his background. She is aware that his wife passed away a couple of years ago and that he has two adult sons who phone him regularly, maybe even daily. None of this registers with Lenny, who usually has the same vacant, distant look in his eyes when Lola questions him.
A good-hearted, generous spirit, Lola steadfastly reminds Lenny of her name not once but several times on each occasion she visits. He usually thinks she’s a maid or a cook or a nurse, someone who can fix little problems that are annoying him.
Lenny can carry a conversation just enough to frustrate all but the most valiant souls who would be willing to push that boulder up the same hill each and every time they would see him. Lola certainly qualifies as such a kind-hearted person, but she can get worn out by the damage Lenny can cause, such as his unknowing destruction of valuable family memorabilia.
And yet, Lenny’s relentlessly deteriorating mind raises some surprisingly shocking questions to Lola’s thinking, queries which give her pause and force her to re-examine her own life. She knew when she signed on to visit Lenny that it would be tough slogging, but it’s doubtful she could have envisioned the depth of the devastation. Can she herself survive Lenny’s sad state?
Highlights: Touching, endearing performances by Jerry Vogel and Kari Ely elevate this heart-wrenching drama by Ron Elisha in a strong production at Upstream Theater which marks its American premiere.
Other Info: Elisha is an Israeli-born Australian physician who has written dozens of plays and won several writing awards in Australia for his literary efforts. While A Tree, Falling isn’t startlingly different or revolutionary in its revelations, Elisha has a knack for conveying the relentless emotional devastation which dementia and Alzheimer’s disease have on an afflicted person’s family and friends.
Christie Johnston’s scenic design is superbly rundown and squalid, highlighted by a terribly deteriorated table and walls with peeling paint where Lenny lives. It’s a depressing sight, coupled with his crumpled and forlorn bed in the corner at stage right and an old-fashioned, small and fading refrigerator and a pot-bellied stove at stage left. Additionally, Johnston adds bizarre geometrical designs in the floor and walls which can indicate a life gone awry.
Laura Hanson adds to the downbeat effect with costumes which accentuate Lenny’s lack of care about his appearance, while Tony Anselmo’s lighting underscores the squalid conditions with hauntingly bleak illumination. Katie Schoenfeld’s props match the forlorn conditions of Lenny’s surroundings, while Michael Dorsey adds the supportive music and sound design.
As director, Dorsey keeps a steady, sure pace for the one-act, 80-minute drama, which is not without its humorous moments. That’s due in large part to Vogel’s wry interpretation of Lenny. His version of the addled and often agitated man answers Lola’s questions with logical responses which are funny in their directness and especially whimsical considering Lenny’s debilitating condition.
Ely’s Lola contrasts succinctly with the often irascible, contrary Lenny, fastidiously working to bring cheer and optimism to his increasingly mundane existence. When she discovers various horrors perpetrated by the clueless Lenny, however, Lola eventually dissolves into a valiant woman who waves the white flag of inevitable surrender to the fates. Ely’s pained face and slumping body portray that resignation beautifully.
There are no easy answers to dementia, something Elisha steadily drives across with his crafty play. A Tree, Falling, however, succeeds most in its faithful adherence to seeking the best in human nature at any time.
Play: A Tree, Falling
Group: Upstream Theater
Venue: Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 North Grand at Olive
Dates: April 19, 20, 21, 22, 26, 27, 28, 29
Tickets: $25-$35; contact firstname.lastname@example.org or 669-6382
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of ProPhotoSTL.com