Several times now, Lisa Suarez's mother has come to see her daughter perform in I'll Remember for You, the play about their relationship and Alzheimer's that opens at Su Teatro tonight. She has sung along with the actresses, watched as little pieces of her life are reconstructed and recreated onstage, and clapped at the conclusion. And then she has forgotten about it. "She lives in the here and now," Suarez says. "She's like, 'Look at that lady in the front row,' not knowing it's actually me playing her. She has no idea."
For more than ten years, Suarez's mother has lived with Alzheimer's, and her symptoms include a dementia that makes her ability to recall and contextualize her previous life progressively more difficult. In 2004, Suarez moved in with her mother at her home on San Antonio's southside, and the experience eventually prompted the longtime performer to turn to the theater as a method of coping. Throughout regular classes, she frequently encouraged her students to "Write what you know." By 2010, it was time to follow her own advice.
"So I collected all my journal entries and this poem I wrote, also called, 'l'll Remember for You,' and I thought about how she looks at my face but doesn't recognize me," Suarez says. "I finally realized I had something to say."
Across two months, she wrote more than a hundred pages inspired by her experiences living with her mother and drafted the original version of the play, which has recently been slimmed down to ninety minutes. Although she could easily have chosen to play herself, Suarez opted to interpret her mother's role in order to protect her story from exploitation. Her mother could not consult, so she would.
"I know her so well, and I've watched her so much that it would be so easy to have another actor do it and almost exploit her condition in a way," she says. "It also seemed to make sense: Sure, I know exactly how I'd react, but what is the acting in that? I'd just be living it."
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With two actors and a single act, I'll Remember for You explores Suarez's roles as a daughter and as a Latina woman as she copes with her mother's evolution into a stranger and the responsibility she feels for taking care of her. It's as likely to makes audiences laugh as it is to induce tears. In one scene, Suarez's mother searches for her "little girls" while Suarez reminds her she doesn't have little girls anymore -- that she is her mother's little girl -- and the two fight in the middle of the night because Suarez cannot take her mother outside to show her someone else's children and pretend.
"It's almost impossible to have this discussion without being emotional about it," says Tony Garcia, Su Teatro's executive artistic director and Suarez's longtime mentor. Inspired by the story and its ties to the Latino community, he asked Suarez to bring I'll Remember for You to Denver for a brief stay. "There's this bond and this sacrifice and this emotion," he explains. "You're going to walk away enlightened and engaged and sad and happy and ready. You're not going to be able to be distant from it."