Acclaimed singer/songwriter Jonatha Brooke emotionally climbed the mountains of the moon and plummeted to the depths of the abyss after she brought her mother to an apartment in NYC so she could care for her the last two years of her mom’s life. Her mom, published poet Darren Stone, had Alzheimer’s.
As Stone’s identity withered toward invisibility, a multiplicity of beings, characteristic of Alzheimer’s patients, emerged as she physically and mentally recreated herself with each new day. The disease took eminent domain of her mind and body parcel by parcel.
Jonatha and her mom accepted the challenge. They enacted their “greatest show on earth.” It was an all-encompassing adventure filled with drama and comedy, the mundane villains of aging (painful arthritis) and their comedic sidekicks (constipation from pain killers). Their surreal vision and dramatic courage helped pass the time as they worked through obstacles. And somehow together, they “got it all down.” Theirs was performance art which provided the raw material for a show which Jonatha Brooke would perform a year after her mom died.
By the time Stone left this plane, Brooke was ready. Mother and daughter had experienced the sublime end game in all of its beauty and beastliness. Brooke would learn to extirpate the horror of their most intimate and personal moments and keep the humor, longing, love and ethereality. By linking snippets of remembered conversation, exact quotes, and bits of her mom’s poems in a heady mix of narration and song, Brooke symbolizes the finest rhythms of those last two years. These snatches of life, brought to the stage in the one-woman musical My Mother Has Four Noses, are a precious human revelation.
One cannot witness this production, directed by Jeremy B. Cohen, and remain untouched. Brooke’s work helps us recognize and appreciate the poetic rhythms in our own lives and the lives of those dearest to us. She has dug deep into her own empathy to distill the highlights of their mother-daughter love relationship. The potion she creates is readily drinkable and the unique, bittersweet taste lingers. We are better for her gently shaking our consciousness, reminding us that our bodies are mortal. We, too, will one day have to answer the hard questions about who we are and whether we are happy about what we have made ourselves into. We, too, will enact our finality alone or in a drama with others. In her remarkable endeavor, Brooke’s artistry is heartfelt and powerful and there is much you will take away to contemplate.
In Brooke’s seminal song “Are You Getting This Down,” the opening number, she reflects how she and her mom came to deal with fleshly mortality through spiritual and electric currents of love, joy and endurance. Brooke settles on shaping the bulk of the production around a motif that streams through both of their lives: her mother’s religious beliefs as a Christian Scientist. In the earlier years it was the bane of their relationship, a major point of disagreement. Jonatha never believed, while her mother remained a staunch follower of the religion which eschews medical interventions.
That refusal is the boulder which shatters Darren Stone again and again and sends her careening to Brooke for help in the crisis created by failing to seek out doctors. Brooke uses the crisis and Christian Science as an overarching metaphor in the production: the salvation which brings no salvation. For example, her mother resorted to the science of prayer in the community of Christian Scientists as she struggled against cancer. When the cancer ate away most of her face, she decided she wanted to survive and elicited Jonatha’s help. The intensive surgeries resulted in multiple reconstructions and prosthetics. Her mom’s life was saved, but her nose was sacrificed during the battle. Hence the title of the production. Indeed, Darren Stone had four noses, as both she and her daughter joked, one for each season.
During the course of the musical we learn of Darren Stone’s artistic bent as a writer, poet and clown: she used the clown makeup to hide the unsightly cancer. In the mother’s incredible portrait, we see the vibrant picture of the daughter. By the end of the production Darren Stone and Jonatha Brooke merge into one. It is not a coincidence that Jonatha takes a poem her mother wrote in 1950 and adds stanzas that she fashions into “Mom’s Song,” the last song of the performance. The song’s completion is a symbol of resolution. Theirs is a love that requires no atonement for unresolved regrets, but finishes with a “tear and a smile” flourish. It is how Jonatha Brooke is able to nightly perform herself and her mother with joy and poignance and humor.
How does one deal before, during and after taking care of someone who as they daily die before you is a confluence of contradiction: loving and recalcitrant, lucid and foggy, cooperative and fearfully resistant, funny and tragic, a “character,” who enters a daily new normal, someone who wants to die to avoid the pain, yet hold on and live with every ounce of fading strength? How indeed? If we receive the artistry of what Jonatha Brooke offers with her instrumental and vocal expertise and power of storytelling, we have the answer in a near-divine and indomitable love that flows between the lovers out into the audiences’ hearts.
My Mother Has Four Noses is produced by Patrick Rains. Musical Director, Guitar: Ben Butler. Cello: Anja Wood. Orchestrations by Jonatha Brooke and Ben Butler. The production will run at The Duke on 42nd Street until May 4.