The Tragicomic Travails of an Alzheimer’s Patient’s Daughter

Alzheimer’s Blues
(Reviewed under working title, The Year of Dead Cats)

-Mark Dundas Wood

“Medicaid was cancelled,” sings Erica Herd. “We could not afford to buy her pills….”

The song, “Alzheimer’s Blues,” comes about 15 minutes into Herd’s one-woman show The Year of Dead Cats (at Stage Left Studio in Manhattan, through June 30). It features lyrics Herd wrote about caring for her mother, sung to a T-Bone Walker tune. Alternating skillfully between speaking and singing, Herd provides a running commentary on the daily life of an Alzheimer’s caregiver. The sequence is a highly effective mix of the quotidian and the profound—and blues seems the perfect musical genre with which to express this blend.

“I need surcease from sorrow,” Herd sings, bringing the song to a close. “Please help me get through one more day.”

The Year of Dead Cats (co-written by Herd with L.E Swenson, and directed by Cheryl King) tells of calendar year 2011, a term that brought a series of calamities into Herd’s life, including a car crash, Hurricane Irene, and the death of three family felines: Cleo, Melville, and Mouse. But, mostly, the play focuses on Herd’s ongoing relationship that year with her Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, Katherine Lind.

Lind was a promising actress in New York City in the 1950s. She starred in productions Off Broadway and regionally, and she knew such luminaries as Leonard and Felicity Bernstein. But in the mid-1970s, Lind began suffering from schizophrenia, and her theatrical career was quickly gone. The Alzheimer’s diagnosis—coming decades later—proved one more nasty turn on an already rough road.

Herd-ing “Cats”: Erica Herd

Besides the “Alzheimer’s Blues” sequence, there are a couple of other potent episodes in The Year of Dead Cats, including a moving depiction of a wedding gathering interrupted by the savagery of Irene. Throughout, Herd strikes a tone that balances the pathetic and the horrific with the absurdly comic. But there is a lot more for Herd to explore here. I hope she will continue to work on the show, perhaps expanding it beyond its current hour-or-so length.

One thing that could be made clearer is the relationship between Alzheimer’s and Lind’s identity as an actor. In the beginning of the show, Herd depicts her mother as having been a flamboyant and imperious personality—she was someone who, when she played Elizabeth I onstage, was clearly every inch the monarch’s equal in terms of regal bearing. Later in the play Herd presents Lind as a largely meek and tentative figure. Did Alzheimer’s alone erase her theatrical flair? Had it been squelched by her earlier mental illness? Or did her bigger-than-life personality continue to bubble up from time to time even as memory and other cognitive functions disintegrated? In other words, how is Lind’s story different from the story of other Alzheimer’s patients?

The play veers back and forth between the representational and the presentational, with Herd sometimes showing scenes from her life (and playing a variety of other characters) and sometimes speaking directly to the audience. When she does the latter, she often seems to quite literally speak above her listeners’ heads, as if playing to people seated in an imaginary mezzanine level. Addressing more directly the audience in the intimate Stage Left space might also strengthen the work.

The biggest issue I have with the show, however, is its conclusion. Currently the performance comes to an abrupt stop, with a fantasy sequence in which Herd and Lind escape from the nursing facility and proceed across the continent like some renegade mother/daughter Thelma-and-Louise team. They head to Washington state, where both cannabis use and assisted suicide (which Lind has reportedly desired) are legal.

Herd clearly wants to avoid a sappy, hackneyed denouement about how love conquers all even in the face of the kind of ongoing adversity that would give the Bible’s Job apoplexy. But late in the play Lind tells her daughter—in what seems a moment of lucidity: “You don’t know how good you are. You do so much.” The moment is glossed over, but I think it is something Herd might consider building upon further.

Also, Herd might want to keep in mind that — as the title makes clear — the play is, among other things, the chronicle of a year. At the top of the play we see a projected snow flurry, but we seem to lose track of the seasonal progression in subsequent scenes. I’m not suggesting that we hear the sentimental strains of “White Christmas” in the background at play’s end. But I think that rounding off the story with a nod to the passing of 2011 would help to give the show a stronger, full-circle finish.