Theater Review - Sentimental journey

Subject poignantly captures Alzheimer's experience

Atlanta playwright Sandra Deer and actress Brenda Bynum provide an affectionate yet unsparing portrait of a particular kind of elderly Southern lady in The Subject Tonight is Love. In depicting Ruby, an outspoken former nurse with failing health, Deer reveals an ear for a graying generation's concerns and speech patterns, while Bynum captures the manner and clipped, honeyed voice. The two women know Ruby backward and forward, from her likes ("Let's go to the Picadilly!") to her prejudices ("I don't want to go to church with the hired help!")

Subject shows the perspective of Ruby's daughter Diana (Linda Thorsen) as she watches her mother slowly succumb to Alzheimer's disease. Having its world premiere on the Alliance Hertz Stage, Subject mostly stays on the right side of the line separating the cliched and the universal. Directed by Kenny Leon, Subject's script could use some shifts of emphasis, and doesn't find as fresh an angle on illness as Wit did. But the play skirts the usual territory of disease-of-the-week TV movies, and explores difficult realities with pathos and humor.

Poetry professor Diana only slowly grows alarmed by her mother's mood swings and delusional behavior. In an early scene, Ruby shifts from childlike vulnerability to bigoted paranoia as she suspects her Asian boarder of being a Red Chinese spy. When Ruby is diagnosed with Alzheimer's, both women face arduous challenges.

Diana's blandly likable son Joshua (Mitchell Anderson) plays referee and narrates the show. An evolutionary biologist, Joshua offers brief lectures on Darwin's The Origin of Species and lives of mayflies, and even uses a plastic skull, oyster shells and spaghetti noodles to symbolically demonstrate the competing theories behind the causes of Alzheimer's.

Josh's speeches provide family background but also attempt to broaden the play's message with national statistics about Alzheimer's and some easy shots at the National Rifle Association. But the demographic data belongs in a public service announcement, and Josh's tangents prove most effective as metaphor, offering less information and more implication.

Although presented without an intermission, Subject takes place in two halves, and in the latter, the scenes get shorter, with Ruby's memories, dreams and songs flowing like a medley amid Diana's observations. Ruby even delivers a speech as a wide-eyed young girl about her childhood on a farm. At times the fanciful scenes seem a bit fuzzy, and Leon's direction doesn't always convey what's going on in the oblique episodes.

Bynum gives a big ol' showy performance, but brings out the play's comedy and poignancy. Ruby can be hostile and unreasonable, but Bynum nearly always makes her sympathetic. Her demented moments aren't nearly as tragic as the lucid ones when Ruby shows awareness that she's losing her mind: "What if I can't remember Jesus?" Late in the play, she has a moment of quiet triumph when she remembers that vanilla extract belongs in the snow cream recipe.

Subject focuses on Ruby and Diana's strained mother-daughter bond but emerges as a bit one-sided. Thorson's acting hits individual moments properly — she has moments of tears, tantrums and icy self-control — but overall doesn't provide a very clear sense of what makes Diana tick. She alludes to a strained history with her mother, but the play provides only passing details about it. Perhaps, instead of so much attention to Ruby's childhood, Subject could benefit from showing some of Diana's youth, to track the origins of their relationship and how it evolved. That is, after all, the subject tonight.