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Page Clements and Deanna Henson in Flawless
Page Clements and Deanna Henson (Photo credit: Paul Siebold, Off Off PR)

Theater Review (NYC): ‘Flawless’ by Robin Goldfin – A Tale of Dementia, Memory, and Family Love

As our society engages more and more with dementia, so too do the arts. Movies are dealing with the topic: Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook, Julie Christie in Away from Her, Still Alice with Julianne Moore, and The Father with Anthony Hopkins are just a few examples from the past 20 years. On stage I’ve seen the subject addressed too – most recently through puppets (André & Dorine)! Robin Goldfin’s Flawless is a worthy entry in the growing canon of fictional depictions of Alzheimer’s and memory loss.

An Enduring Love

Based on an essay by Canadian academic Dr. David J. Lawless, the play gets a bit overly sentimental at times. But the production at Theater for the New City has many virtues, one being its depiction of the havoc memory loss can wreak on a family.

Page Clements and David L. Carson in Flawless
Page Clements and David L. Carson (Photo credit: Paul Siebold, Off Off PR)

Flawless centers on a heartbreakingly charming performance by Page Clements as Em, a septuagenarian with severe memory loss, who is being cared for at home by Daniel (David L. Carson), her husband of over 50 years. Em is far gone into dementia; although she is physically in pretty good health, both her short-term memory and her recall of important events and parts of her life are gone.

Daily she confronts Daniel with repeated questions and assertions: thinking she’s still young and working in her father’s store back in Madrid; not knowing who Daniel is and insisting she never married; gaping in wonder at learning that she has six grown children.

Daniel seems infinitely patient. But his cool, loving surface hides tension. Em can become violent, or dangerously suspicious; Daniel can erupt when her illness threatens his hold on things, or when something arises that throws doubt on his authority over her care. Their youngest daughter Estella (Deanna Henson, in a focused and multifaceted performance) urges moving Em to a home where professionals are available to care for dementia sufferers; Daniel will have none of it.

But this is not the kind of intense, gritty family drama such subject matter might suggest. Carefully but winningly, the script draws humor from the old couple’s interactions. And despite illness and conflict, there’s plenty of love to go around.

Magic and Dementia

Scenes of Em and Daniel as a young couple (Hana Lauer and John Lampe) alternate with the “present-day” action, adding dimension to their characters. Elements of magical realism sneak into the intricate structure of the play. A folk tale from a Spanish storybook comes to life. A suddenly lucid Em guides Estella through the daughter’s own childhood memories.

Most strikingly, a long, beautiful dance sequence (choreographed by Laurie DeVito) features Hannah Dillenbeck as a silent dancer-version of Em and Ricardo Gomez as her old flame. The dance dramatizes the passions that inflamed Em as a young woman in Spain before she settled down in Calgary with the loving but distinctly non-smoldering Daniel. The scene resonates especially since we’ve seen the young Daniel’s clumsy efforts to dance-meld with young Em.

Hana Lauer, Hannah Dillenbeck, Deanna Henson, and Ricardo Gomez in Flawless
Hana Lauer, Hannah Dillenbeck, Deanna Henson, and Ricardo Gomez (photo credit: Paul Siebold, Off Off PR)

Lauer’s young Em has a sweet patience that mirrors old Daniel’s in reverse, one of the script’s subtly effective touches. I found Lampe’s acting style a bit too Broadway-musical big compared to the relatively realistic portrayals of the other characters, but the sincerity with which he nevertheless infused the two-left-footed budding academic won me over after a time.

The luminous music, composed by Oren Neiman and performed live by Neiman on guitar and ukelele and Patricia Santos on cello, drives the narrative almost as much as the dialogue. Daniel has developed for Em a singsong mnemonic for remembering, if only for a few seconds, their children’s names. In one of many sequences where past meets present, Em sings Estella a lullaby – elevated by Clements’ glorious voice. Throughout, the beautifully played incidental music is more than incidental.

Flawless is subtitled “A Tale of Enchantment,” and indeed it is. The magic is happening at Theater for the New City through November 26, 2023. Tickets are available online or at 212-254-1109.

About Jon Sobel

Jon Sobel is Publisher and Executive Editor of Blogcritics as well as lead editor of the Culture & Society section. As a writer he contributes most often to Music, where he covers classical music (old and new) and other genres, and Culture, where he reviews NYC theater. Through Oren Hope Marketing and Copywriting at http://www.orenhope.com/ you can hire him to write or edit whatever marketing or journalistic materials your heart desires. Jon also writes the blog Park Odyssey at http://parkodyssey.blogspot.com/ where he is on a mission to visit every park in New York City. He has also been a part-time working musician, including as lead singer, songwriter, and bass player for Whisperado.

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