Company says comedy is vital for Alzheimer's play

My Father's Bookshelf
Robert Rosen as Bob in "My Father's Bookshelf," a play about Alzheimers diseas being presented by Live Action Set at the Guthrie Theater.
Image courtesy Guthrie Theater (Photo by Mike Neuharth)

Co-director Noah Bremer considers his words carefully when asked what audiences will see during "My Father's Bookshelf."

"They'll see a very funny man, who knows he's going to die," he said. "And that makes it even more sad."

Bremer and Treuer
Noah Bremer and Galen Treuer co-direct "My Father's Bookshelf."
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Live Action Set develops its work as a collaboration. Members have been working on the script for more than a year. There has been a lot of reading and a lot of talking with people with Alzheimers, and their caregivers. Bremer said they were told time and again it's important to focus on humor.

"If you are not laughing you are crying with this disease," he said. "It's true, it's like people, they are like, 'I am going to make the best of this, because I know where it ends. It ends with me in the grave. So I need a laugh. I need to find the joy in life.'"

And he said - humor, is also important because it is in the moment - and that's where people with Alzheimers live.

"They are perpetually in the moment because they don't have a short term memory and the caregivers have to be in the moment and connect on their level," he said.

"If you are not laughing you are crying with this disease."

"My Father's Bookshelf" revolves around Bob. He's an affable optimist in the later stages of Alzheimer's. He loves life. At one point he sits on a picnic cloth with his wife. She's offering him a sandwich, but he's thinking pancakes.

"I wanted pancakes with syrup," he says.

"Honey, it's ham and cheese," she says.

She looks irritated. Then as he loses himself in a reverie she begins singing, "You are my Sunshine."

The actors are Robert Rosen, and Barbara Berlowitz, two of the founder of Theater de le Jeune Lune, and veterans of physical comedy.

Morte Bremer and Treuer
Noah Bremer and Galen Treuer
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

As Bob, Rosen is having a ball, relishing his invisible pancakes so much the crew at the rehearsal can't help but giggle. As his wife, Berlowitz looks on with concern, and then a look of deep sad love. It's a moment of intense emotional contradiction, just one of many in the show.

During a break a few moments later Berlowitz says the material has been challenging.

"I am having a really good time with all of the people, but the subject matter is very disturbing," she said.

"My Father's Bookshelf" is a mixture of reality and Bob's fantasy. There are also a whole lot of refrigerators - 10 of them mounted on wheels for easy movement. They're filled with different things: clothes, books, medication, and even food, but Bremer said they are a physical representation of an intangible idea: home.

"A lot of people with Alzheimer's disease and dementia often want to go home," he said. "That's all they want. They want to go home. But sometimes they are home."

In the play, Rosen's character Bob is always opening and closing the fridges. He said some of the people they talked to for research watched rehearsals. One man with Alzheimer's told him he wasn't putting his water bottle away right, and took him through how it would really happen with memory loss.

"And you close the fridge and say 'Where's my water? Who took my water?' Because you have to assume that somebody else did it not you," he said. "My Father's Bookshelf's" other co-director is Galen Treuer. He said there's a lot of action in the play involving doctors, family, care providers, grocery clerks, and dogs.

"The show shifts a lot," he said. "In some ways that's to represent what we think might be the Alzheimers mind. There's a lot of shifting, or permeability."

The audience will get to wear name tags and experience a caregiver lecture. There's even a full choir. And Galen Treuer said there will be audience discussions after eight of the 10 shows at the Guthrie's Dowling Studio Theater.

"We are spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on research," he said. "And that's great, but it's not making it easier for the people who already have it. What's making it easier are the people who are talking about the disease."

And talking is what Treuer and Live Action Set hope to encourage. Along with a few laughs. Although that will be up to the audience.