Herd Takes on Alzheimer’s Blues

January 26, 2014

Caregiver transforms challenge through humor, storytelling and music at Depot Theatre

By Alison Rooney

Those confronted with the hard realities of becoming a caregiver for a close relative or friend are usually hard-pressed to find the humor in their situation. For adult children, suddenly becoming a kind of parent to their own parent, emotional shifts can be as overwhelming as physical and logistical demands.

Erica Herd, a writer and actress, found herself in this difficult situation when her mother, also an actress, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. As it escalated, she became determined to find a creative outlet in which to express the new world in which they both found themselves.

“I needed to get this out of my system. Alzheimer’s is a very isolating kind of disease,” Herd said. Herd’s experience resulted in a theater piece, Alzheimer’s Blues, which she will present at 8 p.m. on Feb. 1, at Garrison’s Depot Theatre. A discussion will follow the performance.

This theatrical venture actually began with a series of blog posts, nearly three years ago, on Open Salon. Some were in a comedic vein while others were quite “serious and poignant — it fluctuated,” Herd says. She then determined it was something she wanted to theatricalize and make into a play of some kind. Meeting with Cheryl King, artistic director at Manhattan’s Stage Left Studio, together they brought Herd’s “stack of posts” to dramatic life, changing a lot of narrative to dialogue, writing scenes and structuring and shaping it into theatrical, presentational, form.

Herd’s husband, L.E. Swenson, also contributed several scenes. Portions of the play were workshopped at Stage Left in 2012 and the play then with the working title of The Year of Dead Cats, premiered there in June 2013.

At first, Herd didn’t realize her mother had Alzheimer’s, “so when she accused me of stealing her Social Security checks I thought she was being mean. The last straw was when my husband and I took her upstate to visit my brother. When we picked her up, her blouse was on backwards and she had no shoes — not like her at all as she was usually a snappy dresser. It was a five-hour drive, and during the trip she started to panic and I realized something completely different was happening.”

Herd’s mother, Katherine Lind, was, in the words of her daughter, “an incredibly gifted actress and singer who was struck first by mental illness, then Alzheimer’s, making it impossible for her to continue working at her chosen career.” Lind was actually born Dolores Wozadlo and took the stage name Katherine Lind after Jenny Lind, the Swedish opera singer.

From an early age, she knew she wanted to be an actress. After studying in the Midwest and in New York City, she enjoyed a successful career in the theater in the 1950s, before the illnesses took their toll. Herd, who joined various Alzheimer’s family support groups after the diagnosis, continues as her caregiver today; she now lives in a nursing home.

Herd says her experience “inspired me to create a performance as a tool to help me and others process the ironic humor, stress and pitfalls inherent in caring for a terminally ill loved one … I also touch upon the financial aspect of Alzheimer’s – navigating state bureaucracies, i.e. Medicaid, when the person afflicted is low-income, like my mom.”

The play, which is multi-media and contains slides and video in addition to music, consists of non-linear vignettes — “a Brechtian format” describes Herd, “but there is a through line. I do hit upon cataclysmic issues: around the time of the diagnosis Hurricane Irene flooded my home, I had numerous cats which died, but there is hilarity, too — there has to be.”

Sections of the play involve fantasy; Herd plays multiple roles. As press notes state: “The play shares our experiences in navigating the comedic, strange, and unknown terrain of Alzheimer’s, mental illness and federal and state bureaucracies. We strive to find meaning, hope and sanity through humor, storytelling and music … Alzheimer’s Blues is a surreal look into the lives and minds of a mother and daughter, a story about life, death and love, but mostly love.”

Herd is honest in saying that some who have seen it have loved it; some have not.

“Some people think certain subjects can have no humor in them – that you can’t make light of this kind of situation in any way,” she notes. “But I feel differently. I think it can speak to a lot of people, and not necessarily people in the same situation, but anyone taking care of anyone. It’s a lot about love and about keeping a communication with a person despite all the infirmity. This show is not for everybody, but most people like it. Some caregivers have said ‘I was there with you every moment on stage, laughing and crying at the same time.’”

Ultimately, Herd says she is “hoping that people seeing it understand that you can find humor there somewhere, and, most importantly that they not lose the person in the disease. Sometimes it’s hard to see that.” Herd’s current efforts are focused on performing Alzheimer’s Blues wherever she can, but she has thought about her next writing project already.

“It will be a multi-person play,” she says, “and it will be funny — and only funny.”

Tickets for Alzheimer’s Blues cost $22 for adults, $18 for seniors and $15 for students and can be purchased at or by phoning the Depot at 845-424-3900.

The Year of Dead Cats

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

– Karen D’Onofrio

Do not, I repeat, do not be put-off by the title of this play. The kitties are mentioned briefly and kindly. Hankies will not be needed. Unless you have to grab one to wipe away tears of laughter,
which is entirely possible.

This production is based on the true story of ERICA HERD’s mother, Katherine Lind, a beautiful and successful New York actress. Then schizophrenia crept in, followed by Alzheimer’s, making a difficult diva even more difficult. Mom’s landlord notifies Erica that her mom is being evicted. This is the fifth eviction, and the time has come. Erica is now in charge.

That adult diapers, government bureaucracy, gibberish, and a hurricane can be made unbelievably funny is incredible but true. Writer HERD, despite what must have been an intensely emotional period in her life, has created one of the most laugh-out-loud plays ever. She portrays her mother, herself, and many other characters along the way with wild pizzazz. And she sings! Enjoy the riotous “Geezer Cabaret” number, or a unique and beautifully sung yet roll on the floor laughing variation of “Memory”
(yes, from “Cats”). There are no serious moments. The facts are unhappy, but that doesn’t intrude one little bit on the play, which is 100 percent fun.

“THE YEAR OF DEAD CATS” is a must-see for anyone who wants to get their happyface on.

-Karen D’Onofrio-

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.

Q&A Preview By Erica Herd

Alzheimer’s Blues
Q&A Preview by Erica Herd
May 24, 2013

What is your job on this show?
Playwright and actor..

What is your show about?
A surreal and slapstick story about a woman trying to make sense of a terrible disease while the rest of her world threatens to fall apart.

Where were you born? Where were you raised? Where did you go to school?
I was born in Manhattan, on East 27th Street, in a 5th floor walk up apartment. My Mom gave birth to me alone (not intentional, I was premature) with the cat Mitzi acting as midwife. When I was 5 or 6 we moved to Jackson Heights, Queens. I went to Catholic school through high school, and received my B.A. from Hunter College.

Who is more important in the theater: the actor, the playwright, or the director?
They are all equally important. In this show, I am co-author and actor, and my husband, L.E. Swenson is co-author. Without a good director, even a brilliant play can fail. I am very fortunate to have Cheryl King as my director. Couldn’t be happier.

Why did you want to write/direct/produce/act in/work on this show?
This show found me. The subject matter is personal–about my mom who was an exceptionally talented actress who suffered from mental illness and was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2010. I take a comedic spin on it, try to find a way to heal the pain with laughter. It started as a blog on Open Salon while I was in the throes of dealing with mom’s illness in 2011. And with the help of my director and co-author, we transformed it into a play.

Groucho, Chico, Harpo, or Zeppo?

Who are your heroes?
Neurologist and author, Dr. Oliver Sacks (“Awakenings” and many other fine books); the women from the Alzheimer’s Association NYC Chapter caretakers support group; punk band Pussy Riot; the 911 first responders.

Backstage Review


Review of Sketch Comedy Group mini red satan
“Standout performances include Erica Herd, who perfects the old Jewish New Yorker in ‘Bingo Bitch’ . . . ”
– Aliza Mills (2003)

Backstage Reviews | PDF