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Alzheimer's from the inside out

Christine Mary Dunford brings Lisa Genova's novel Still Alice to the Lookingglass stage.

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The most succinct first-person account of living with Alzheimer's disease remains the one provided by the first person diagnosed with it. Auguste Deter was 51 years old and otherwise healthy when she was brought, in 1901, to Dr. Alois Alzheimer's clinic in Frankfurt, Germany, with a strange case of what looked like premature senility characterized by confusion, volatile behavior, and severe memory lapses. "I have lost myself," she said.

That about sums it up. The plaques and tangles Alzheimer would find in Deter's brain after her death, five years later, were strangling more than her neurons. They were destroying her identity, too. The past makes us who we are; if we lose access to it, we lose access to ourselves.

Because those with Alzheimer's eventually become unaware of what's happening to them, we sometimes talk about the disease as though it's harder to watch than to have. But the process of forgetting everything—in the early stages, at least—must be painful and terrifying. In his beautiful 2002 memoir Losing My Mind, Thomas DeBaggio writes of "choking with fear" after being diagnosed, at the age of 57, with early-onset Alzheimer's (he died in 2011). As DeBaggio's memory fades, the book ends with a passage worthy of Samuel Beckett: "I must now wait for the silence to engulf me and take me to the place where there is no memory left and there remains no reflexive will to live. It is lonely here waiting for memory to stop and I am afraid and tired."

Lisa Genova's novel Still Alice, which Christine Mary Dunford has adapted for Lookingglass Theatre Company, also centers on someone with early-onset Alzheimer's, and also attempts to depict the disease from the inside out. Fifty-year-old Alice Howland is an accomplished professor of cognitive psychology. She's happy both at work and at home, where she lives with her loving if somewhat distracted husband, who's a scientist at the university. They've raised three well-adjusted children (reduced to two in the stage version), who are now in their 20s.

But lately Alice has begun tripping over ordinary words. She becomes disoriented jogging less than a mile from home. At first she chalks her memory problems up to stress and menopause, never dreaming that she could have dementia (though 10 percent of Alzheimer's patients are under the age of 65). When things continue to worsen—she goes to the office in the middle of the night, has to be reintroduced to someone she met five minutes before at a party—she sees a neurologist, who gives her the bad news.

Genova's writing is flat, largely devoid of poetry, and at times overly clinical. She describes Alice's medications and memory tests in minute detail, but her metaphors for conveying Alice's state of mind can be cliched. There's talk of wading through mental sludge; at one point Alice says she feels like "some crazy Dr. Seuss character in a bizarre land."

But for all the book's banalities, Genova makes an admirable effort to provide a straightforward account of dementia from the perspective of someone who has it. We read about Alice's fears and frustrations as well as her moments of lucidity and calm. Robbed of both past and future, she appreciates the present far better than those around her, as when she tastes ice cream like it's her first time, or enjoys a moonlit swim.

In a stage adaptation, these moments have the most potential for transcending the limitations of the book. Given its ephemeral nature, the theater is a powerful medium for expressing the fragility of each passing second. But apart from a lovely scene where Alice wanders into a church and marvels at the splashes of color created by sunlight filtering through stained glass, Dunford, who also directs, pays little attention to this aspect of Alice's experience.

John Musial's set—an ordinary suburban kitchen dwarfed by an enormous white backdrop—occasionally turns sinister, thanks to flashing lights and projections of shifting grids, floor plans, and other data. But both the script and the production have a bland, case-study feel to them, lacking the specificity and artistry needed to capture what makes memory worth cherishing in the first place.

Dunford divides the title role between two actresses. Eva Barr is Alice as she's seen by others: capable and confident at first, then quizzical, desperate, and increasingly childlike. Mariann Mayberry, meanwhile, plays Alice's inner self, in charge of commentary—she's like a cross between a Greek chorus and Jiminy Cricket. She too grows more foggy-headed as the disease progresses, eventually staggering around the set in a bathrobe and bunny slippers, unable to offer Alice much beyond moral support.

Since these two halves are never apart from or in conflict with each other, they often come across like a pair of dotty girlfriends after a little too much to drink. As a result, we never sense the terrible dissolution of identity that accompanies the loss of memory. "I miss myself," Alice says, echoing Auguste Deter. The line would have more impact if Alice weren't still on such chummy terms with her consciousness when she says it.

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