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Salt Lake City Weekly Goodbye to Mind, Body and Soul

SLAC's The Last Lists of My Mad Mother deals with Alzheimer's in a touching way.

By Scott C. Morgan

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  Having someone close suffer from Alzheimer's Disease is an uncomfortable subject to deal with, but one that most of us will have to face up to someday. Although there are record numbers of Americans living longer, you would be hard-pressed to find anything in the "forever-young mentality" of American's pop culture that treats a crippling and complex disease like Alzheimer's in a compassionate way.

While there has been the acclaimed PBS documentary Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter and the occasional melodramatic TV movie of the week, American prime-time usually exploits Alzheimer's and the elderly as easy targets for cheap laughs.

In some respect, Salt Lake Acting Company's regional premiere production of The Last Lists of My Mad Mother still contains many of the laughs we've come to expect with elderly characters. But the play is also greatly imbued with many of the honest emotions and issues that are usually glossed over when Hollywood attempts to be noble or clever while tackling difficult issues like aging and Alzheimer's.

Along with her need to address Alzheimer's honestly, former Utahn Julie Jensen wrote The Last Lists of My Mad Mother to help her cope with her own mother's death of complications from Alzheimer's in 1993.

"The play's pretty much autobiographical," Jensen said during a break from a play-reading rehearsal. "Sometimes I can't remember what actually happened with her death and what didn't. It all sort of became the play instead of my life."

Although Jensen didn't want her play "about Alzheimer's" to sound like a thesis statement, she feels that there are many issues surrounding the disease and dying that our culture doesn't like to talk about. "America's great for thinking that we're not going to die," Jensen said. "It's a serious problem when a loved one no longer has a brain; when they've lost their relationship to the world, their family and friends. I'm not so sure whether or not we should prolong their lives in that mental state."

With The Last Lists of My Mad Mother, Jensen presents a strong argument as she chronicles how the personal relationship of a mother and her two daughters is affected by Alzheimer's. While one daughter sacrifices her writing career to assume the role of caretaker, the other keeps a safe and "justified" distance by taking care of her own husband and children.

In The Last Lists of My Mad Mother, Jensen effectively taps the humor and pain of everyday occurrences and gives them dramatic weight. Whether it's the mother's insistence on just eating ice cream, Hershey's bars and Honey Bunches of Oats, or the mother and daughter driving to see a dead deer caught on barbed wire, The Last Lists... thrives on simplicity to make audiences aware of one of life's everyday tragedies.

Throughout the play, Jensen reminds the audience of the mother's former mental prowess as past recordings of voice reciting English lessons play during scene changes. And during other scene changes, the current state of the mother is ironically commented on, as the "Alphabet Song" is played on piano with minor keys.

Marilyn Holt as Ma, in the dramatic gem about one of life's bitter difficulties.
With the sturdy direction of David Mong and Keven Myhre's spare Magritte-like set of empty polished steel frames and a cloudy sky backdrop, all the attention is rightly directed on the production's fine trio of actresses.

Marilyn Holt is brilliant as Ma, showing how her mind rapidly disintegrates from Alzheimer's. All of Holt's dialogue, gestures, and expressions ring heartbreakingly true without any unnecessary or forced sentimentality.

The only time Holt's spellbinding performance is broken happens during the darkened scene changes, when one can observe her silhouette quickly getting into place. Otherwise, her bittersweet performance carries most of the production.

As for Carloyn Wood and Kathryn Atwood, it takes a while to warm up to their respective performances of Dot and Sis. And even after you've become comfortable with the two, they still pale in light of Holt's great performance.

Wood does an admirable job as Dot, the narrating daughter and occasionally bitter caretaker. But sometimes it's difficult to fully believe her performance, especially when Wood navigates through Jensen's simile-filled dialogue and speeches. Though Jensen justifies Dot's metaphorical flights of fancy by making her a writer, it sometimes sounds unnatural when the literary dialogue bursts through.

As the stereotypical "soccer mom" daughter, Atwood hits the target as her character shows the difficulty of staying positive and perky while dealing with issues of sickness and death. Through the sister's relationship with Dot, Jensen is also able to comment on the competing roles that women frequently grapple with.

While the play's final "driving" scene between Holt and Wood rushes by a bit too fast, it serves as powerful reminder that there is very little time in life, and that we should take care of what needs to be said before it becomes too late.

The play deals specifically with Alzheimer's Disease, but it's really more about the changing relationships we experience with our loved ones throughout life. Though simple and short, The Last Lists of My Mad Mother is a theatrical gem that does its small part to make one of life's difficulties easier to bear.

The Last Lists of My Mad Mother plays until Nov. 9 at Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North. Call 355-ARTS for performance and ticket information.

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