There's a pleasant straightforwardness to Sheldon Friedman's The Long Goodbye, which begins with a gunshot, then an elderly man holding the gun and describing the slow process of his wife's deterioration from Alzheimer's. Moving back a little in time, you see this man, Parker, with his dazed and disoriented wheelchair-bound wife, Babe, who's sometimes hostile, sometimes childishly quiescent, never capable of rational speech. These scenes alternate with scenes from early in their life, when young actors take up the roles. The best is when Babe and Parker are students, meeting and flirting; the young woman is written as a real person, simultaneously sweet, sulky and bossy, and also played by the strongest performer in the cast, Devon Combs. Periodically throughout the play, Parker invokes Longfellow to describe his beloved — "Day by day his heart within him/Grew more hot with love and longing/For the maid with yellow tresses" — and you can't help noticing that Combs does, in fact, have wondrously long and lustrous hair.
Problems arise when Parker takes Babe home to his snobbish, patrician mother and sadly beaten-down and resigned father. There's a little superficial bonding between the two women, but it doesn't amount to much. As the story unfolds and young Babe and Parker are replaced by two older actors, we realize that Parker has re-created his parents' marriage. Babe, now an over-worked and ambitious doctor, has become increasingly imperious and unfeeling toward Parker and their son, Jeremy.
Perhaps the most interesting thread in the play has to do with the issue of personality — what's inherent and soul-deep versus what's caused by physiological changes. We all know that Alzheimer's is about the loss of self, the long process by which specificity, contour and personality erode; we're also aware that irritability is a common symptom. But before the ultimate dissolution — "sans eyes, sans teeth, sans taste, sans everything," as Shakespeare had it — patients' behaviors vary widely. Some become gentle and loving, some wistful, some frozen in a state of terrible rage. So you wonder whether these responses reflect something that was lurking in the brain long before illness struck. Was there something flawed within Babe from the beginning, something reflected in her destructive dealings with her husband and son? And did the resigned helplessness Parker learned from his own father help send her over the edge?
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The Long Goodbye
Presented by Cactus Productions through January 28, Crossroads Theater, 2590 Washington Street, 303-832-0929, www.denvercrossroads.com.
Parker's musings in the nursing home scenes touch on these questions, and represent some of the best writing in The Long Goodbye. The play is clearly structured, and the movement among time periods thoughtful. The weakest scenes are those between the middle-aged Babe and Parker. They're simply not believable — too much argument, accusation, weeping, all mixed with dialogue that communicates necessary plot points rather than illuminating character. The specific young people we met near the play's beginning have devolved into stereotype. And although the script approaches the topic of Alzheimer's with gentle honesty, it could go quite a bit deeper.
The cast is not a professional one; the acting is utilitarian rather than inspired. Still, there's enough humor and pathos unfolding on stage to make us feel for the girl whose hair "was like the sunshine" and the man who discovered that she was ultimately a mirage.