REVIEW: Blackberry Winter


IMAGE: Holly Twyford as Vivienne Avery. Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.


Let’s make this simple: if you love theater, if you are even remotely excited about the fact that, between now and June 11, a theater production of extraordinary caliber is within your reach in ever-so-close Silver Spring, get to Forum Theatre at the Silver Spring Black Box and see Steve Yockey’s Blackberry Winter. If you don’t, blame yourself for missing an exceptional experience.

Forum, as a member theater of the National New Play Network (NNPN), is participating in a “rolling world premiere” of Blackberry Winter. Eight NNPN theaters in all have produced the play, beginning in September 2015; Forum’s production is the next-to-last.

Playwright Steve Yockey has written a crisp, poignant script, and it comes to compelling life under Michael Dove’s direction. The result is the kind of theater that is oddly rare: it draws you in simply and engagingly, and possibly amuses you quite a lot, but in the end it brings you up against a dire reality that, with only the slightest reshuffling of the cards, could be yours or mine.


Ahmad Kamal as Gray Mole. Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

Blackberry Winter is about dementia and the Alzheimer’s disease that produces it. The story is told by Vivienne Avery (Holly Twyford), whose mother is suffering from – no, “living with” – Alzheimer’s.

That abrupt wording correction is Vivienne’s. She does that a lot: switches from her last spoken word to a better chosen one, adjusting her concepts to deal with the exhausting new turns that her mother’s life, and her own, have taken.

The play takes place on a stage with fourteen pedestals spaced evenly throughout. On each of thirteen pedestals is an object: a pair of scissors, a bottle of iodine, a letter opener, and so forth.

The fourteenth pedestal is bare.

As Vivienne enters, a single light comes up on each pedestal. She takes out a business envelope, walks to the bare pedestal, and puts the envelope down.

That envelope and its contents will preoccupy Vivienne for the remaining ninety minutes of the play, as she makes her way among the thirteen populated pedestals, picking up each object and telling the audience (there is no fourth wall here) how it relates to the ordeal of her mother’s dementia.

All the while, she refuses to open the envelope, which, she is convinced, contains a letter from her mother’s assisted living facility informing her, as the “proactive family care manager,” that her mother’s dementia has progressed to a stage where it is necessary for her to be moved to a nursing home, at a horrific increase in cost.


Ahmad Kamal, Holly Twyford, and Sara Dabney Tisdale. Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

You know that the story is only going to get worse; Vivienne does, too.

But not right away – in fact, for a while, it gets really funny. Vivienne pulls out a large index card from a box and launches into a point-by-point recital of a recipe, learned from her mother, for a world-class coconut cake, all the while engaging in a sociological riff of wide-ranging breadth and frequent hilarity.

You may find yourself getting sucked into the monumental two- versus three-pan coconut cake baking debate – a long-standing bone of contention between Vivienne and her mother, who, while she can no longer bake a coconut cake herself because she has forgotten how, can observe her daughter making one and point out a boatload of mistakes.

Inevitably, though, the recipe ends, the laughs fade, and Vivienne’s tale gets grimmer, to the point that she must take occasional refuge in a creation myth that she has devised in order to explain the awful disease that has taken hold of her mother.

This myth, set in a forest populated by animals, is charmingly narrated by Ahmad Kamal, as a Gray Mole, and Sara Dabney Tisdale, as a White Egret, while their animated counterparts act out the story in Patrick Lord’s exquisite 12-foot-high projections. The myth tells how the Egret comes up with a wonderful idea for preserving the animals’ memories by dropping them into a wooden box and burying them deep in the ground, and how her plan comes to grief.


Sara Dabney Tisdale as White Egret Photo by Teresa Wood Photography.

Vivienne revisits the myth at intervals throughout her own narrative, which becomes increasingly desperate.

And all the while the envelope lies there, unopened. At long last, Vivienne, realizing that the contents must be faced, takes up a letter opener and goes to the envelope, philosophizing that it is just another step towards what’s coming. Do we get to know the contents? Come to Silver Spring and find out.

Do come, by all means, for whatever reason you care to choose: Holly Twyford’s amazing turn as Vivienne, commanding your attention and engaging your emotions for every minute she spends on stage; the compelling trajectory of playwright Yockey’s story; Ahmad Kamal’s and Sara Tisdale’s engaging narration and Patrick Lord’s elegiac projections of the creation myth; or simply to take a broad, deep look at a disorder that has affected so many lives, and will continue to, until it is defeated – maybe even your life, maybe mine.

By Steve Yockey; directed by Michael Dove; set/costumes/props by Debra Kim Sivigny; lighting by John D. Alexander; sound by Thomas Sowers; projections by Patrick Lord. Forum Theatre at Silver Spring Black Box, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring, MD. Through Jun 11; Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sundays at 2:00 pm. Running time: 90 min (no intermission); OpenForum discussion after each performance.

Cast: Holly Twyford, Ahmad Kamal, Sara Dabney Tisdale


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About the Author

Steve LaRocque
Steve LaRocque has been an actor, director, playwright and technician in Maryland community and professional theaters since 1994. A retired Navy veteran, he recently completed a two-and-half year run with his one-man show, Byline: Ernie Pyle, playing the famous World War II correspondent.