Actress Mary Buss, as the always sassy, slightly southern, hard-bitten and vulnerable middle-aged daughter of a recently diagnosed Alzheimer’s patient, captures our attention from the moment the lights come up on Steve Yockey’s Blackberry Winter, which opened its rolling world premiere tonight at Oregon Contemporary Theatre.
Buss’s Vivienne — really, the only character in this 90-minute show — is quick witted, occasionally foul mouthed, aggressive, flirty and funny as she tells the hopelessly sad story of her mother’s descent into mental darkness, and the life wreckage that all that entails.
The poignant moments pile up quickly here, one on top of the other, as Buss works her way through an extraordinary long monologue, facing down an unopened letter — it came from the assisted living facility where her mom resides — that almost certainly gives the bad news that it’s time to move her mother to a nursing home. All the while, Vivienne is wrestling with glimpses of her own childhood through her mother’s failing memory.
Buss is quite an actor. I’ve not seen her before, but she’s worked at OCT in the past, with such substantial roles as Hedda in Hedda Gabler. A professional with an Equity card, she works in Oklahoma City in both theater and film. And without her, I don’t think this show would have been even vaguely possible.
That’s because this is a very difficult play. It’s essentially a 90-minute soliloquy about suffering and loss — an unrelenting recipe for disaster if it’s not lightened up by something. (I’d say cue the Alzheimer’s jokes, but there aren’t any.) Yockey’s language is rich and splendid, to the point that early on a recitation of a coconut cake recipe is magnificent. And Buss’s acting provides an occasional counterpoint to all the misery. But we need more substantial relief, some kind of emotional contrast.
What playwright Yockey uses for leavening here is a play within a play, Vivienne’s imaginative effort to tell a creation myth about where this particular form of suffering comes from. The tale, performed in three short acts by Dan Pegoda, as the Grey Mole, and Erica Towe, as the White Egret, is sweet but not very satisfying. The best part is the video projections, like a moving version of a good children’s book, by Tim Rogers that help tell this cute but awkward story.
The fable device works well enough, as far as it goes, but the play could use another character or two. As good as Buss’s performance was — and it was absolutely compelling in places — an hour and a half is just too long to hang on to such a tale of woe.
But I’d say go see this one, if only to see Buss pull off something just short of a miracle.