Blackberry Winter

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday March 30, 2016

Adrianne Krstansky in the New Repertory Theatre's production of Steve Yockey's 'Blackberry Winter,' continuing through April 17 at the Arsenal for the Arts
Adrianne Krstansky in the New Repertory Theatre's production of Steve Yockey's 'Blackberry Winter,' continuing through April 17 at the Arsenal for the Arts  (Source:Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

Anyone with aging parents knows the anxieties surrounding questions of whether Mom and Dad are safe living on their own as the years advance and physical facilities -- balance, sturdiness, eyesight -- decline. For those who witness their parents' enter a mental decline, it must be harder still -- a lot harder.

Steve Yockey's new play "Blackberry Winter" literally puts that situation front and center in the person of Vivienne (Adrianne Krstansky), the middle-aged daughter of a woman who is suffering... rather, Vivienne, corrects herself, is living with... dementia. The word is a catch-all for a variety of similar conditions, but in this case it's a progressive degeneration of Vivienne's mother's ability to know where she is, who is present with her, what things mean. It's also a disease with some seeming hereditary tendencies. "It's not about me," Vivienne repeats, as if in apology for thinking about her own prospects; "It's not about me," as if to fend off the existential terror of reviewing her own possible decline in a few decades. But, of course, it is about Vivienne, who serves as caretaker, advocate, and witness.

Paula Langton as White Egret
Paula Langton as White Egret  (Source: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

The play shrugs aside the fourth wall. Vivienne chats with the audience, revealing her raw and vulnerable self, offering what she knows about the medical and scientific nature of her mother's illness, recounting anecdotes that illustrate her mother's confusions, and sharing the "creation myth" she's created to help herself process the situation. Mother is slipping away, but it's Vivienne who is in extremis; the trigger for this is a letter she knows will contain only bad news.

The letter comes to rest on one of a number of pedestals. Other pedestals hold treasures and mementos of comparable emotional significance: A box full of recipes written on index cards, a small horse statue. A nearby table is covered with a heap of scarves. These things have a place in the story, and they await their turns with decorum. The set design, by Matthew T. Lazure, is reserved; not exactly somber, but not cheery, either, and yet possessing a homey sense of personal space. The all-wood construction -- with platforms of slightly different heights, and podium-like pedestals positioned under lighting designer Christopher Brusberg's unobtrusive spotlights -- suggests a living room and a porch area, where patio furniture sits. This is Vivienne's internal world, a place to go to with her conflicting thoughts and feelings. When the heat is too great in the hearth, she comes here -- to her heart.

In three interludes, two others actors join Vivienne. These are the characters in her creation myth, a White Egret (Paula Langton) and a Gray Mole (Ken Cheeseman). The myth is illustrated by means of shadow puppetry projected on the back wall (Lazure designed the puppetry); Langton and Cheeseman give voice to their characters, which speak in a childlike, repetitive way. The actors adopt a singsong delivery. The myth is also a fable -- a desolating bedtime story a child might tell herself.

Ken Cheeseman as Gray Mole
Ken Cheeseman as Gray Mole  (Source: Andrew Brilliant / Brilliant Pictures)

The disease is unsparing. Bravely, Yockey has written a play that is also unsparing, but it's also therapeutic: Vivienne owns moments of thoughtlessness and horrific temptation -- she rues words she uttered, ideas about dark woods and abandonment. This is a play about loneliness and loss, and about being in a place where conviction is hard to hold on to. Life itself is a tenuous proposition; even the concrete sureties we thought were there can tend to waver. What's left?

Well, what's left is courage -- and that's what "Blackberry Winter" is all about. For 85 minutes, we're given a master class in deep and complicated feelings that surge and roil well away from rational thought, in the realm of the viscerally essential.

Composer David Reiffel captures the play's sad beauty right along with Adrianne Krstansky, and director Bridget Kathleen O'Leary allows the text its hard moments and sharp edges, all while knowing just where to emphasize a lyrical or tender passage. This is a fairy tale for our age; like all fairy tales, it's about dark and scary things, and how to face them.

"Blackberry Winter" continues through April 17 at the Arsenal for the Arts in Watertown. For tickets and more information, please visit

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.