On stage, as in medicine, dementia is the topic du jour. Broadway productions of The Waverley Gallery and The Father both focused on Alzheimer’s. A pivotal character in the smash The Ferryman suffers from severe dementia. Off of the Great White Way, recent productions of Terminus at New York Theatre Workshop and The Net Will Appear with Richard Masur at 59e59 Theaters centered on the delusion and confusion that afflict dementia sufferers and the sorrow the disease inflicts on their loved ones.
The subject hits the stage at 59e59 anew with Jack Neary’s Trick or Treat. This worthy import from Vermont’s Northern Stage is a crackling family-secrets drama built from surprise twists, black humor, and craftily imagined and realized characters and performances.
Gordon Clapp of Hill Street Blues fame heads a vibrant cast of five as Johnny Moynihan, the grouchy, thin-skinned paterfamilias of a small clan with a very big skeleton in its closet. The specter of his wife’s advancing Alzheimer’s disease throw him, his daughter Claire (Jenni Putney), and his tempestuous policeman son Teddy (David Mason) – joined by Teddy’s busybody ex Hannah (Kathy McCafferty) – into a dizzying whirlpool of anxiety.
The reason for the outsized fuss, made clear in Act II, neatly harkens back to something established at the beginning: Johnny avoids ever sleeping when his dementia-stricken spouse is awake. Clapp renders Johnny as a vibrating bundle of nerves and emotions, especially raw when his stay-awake vow lapses.
One minute he’s asserting dominance over his daughter, the next he’s cowering before his angry son. At still others he’s weeping with utterly convincing sensitivity over Nancy’s condition and fate.
His interaction with unseen trick-or-treaters at the outset establishes the comic tone even as it reveals key facets of his personality, a twistedly magnetic one that carries much of the action. It’s a deeply striated performance of edgy granite and raw discomposure.
Mason is both touching and terrifying as Teddy, a police captain about to be promoted to Chief – providing his family’s dark secret stays hidden. More than once he makes us fear that a murder is about to occur before our eyes as Hannah persists in trying to restore to rationality a rapidly escalating situation. As for Putney’s Claire, we’re with her all the way as shock after shock shakes her carefully constructed togetherness. And McCafferty’s Hannah is a fiery yet vulnerable delight, like the Halloween jack-o-lantern perched on the console organ (a nice touch) in Michael Ganio’s gorgeous living-room set.
Carol Dunne’s taut direction in tandem with Neary’s script and a superb technical and creative team support the cast in turning the Moynihan living room into a living hotbed of laughs and pains, love and loss, and sins-of-the-sons generational conflict that seems extreme only if we avert our eyes from the bruised undersides of our own lives and families. Trick or Treat runs until Feb. 24. Visit the 59e59 website for schedule and tickets.
Read the next and final spoiler paragraph only if you’ve seen the play already.
As I noted above, theatergoers have in the past few years had numerous opportunities to see the awfulness – and occasionally the magic – of dementia memorably depicted on stage. Kathy Manfre’s poignant portrayal of Nancy ranks with the very best. Calm in her good moments, painfully frustrated in others, it’s a multilayered portrait that those who’ve dealt with the phenomenon will recognize all too well.