Warning: May contain spoilers:
The last two nights I have seen plays that explore the relationships between sons and their fathers. Two nights ago, it was Back to Berlin, by Vern Thiessen, and last night it was Minding Dad, by Kenneth Brown, who plays alongside Jon Paterson, formerly of Winnipeg and now living and working out of Edmonton.
In one sense the plays are opposites. Back to Berlin deals with a father who is plagued by memories he cannot forget. Minding Dad on the other hand deals with a father who increasingly is forgetting his memories, as he(and his son) struggle with Alzheimers. In both plays, however, we see the sons gain an increased understanding and deepened appreciation for their fathers by the time the show has ended.
The tone of Minding Dad is set before the play begins as the patrons are facing a stage that contains two empty chairs, a hospital style bed and a walker. This sparse set (the stage area is quite large), multitasks as seniors home, car, restaurant, family home and more in the course of the play and does so very well.
The play travels back and forth in time between the present and various stages in the life of Daniel and his Father. This is demanding for the actors, but especially so for Kenneth Brown who plays the father.
For the play to be able to capture the sense of devastation brought on by the disease, Brown has to be both the strong, opinionated and principled younger man, and the virtually helpless old man. Brown pulls off both of these with a great deal of elan. In the flashback scenes we see him as the strong, principled man that he was for most of his life. Much is made of his life in the Navy, and having been taught to swear, which helps establish him as once being an incredibly virile man. Then, in watching him as the old man, you find yourself holding your breath a little as the son tries to help him out of the bed, hoping that in the process he won’t topple over. Throughout, Brown moves seamlessly between the younger and the older man.
Paterson, on the other hand requires a more subtle transformation throughout the course of the play. From the endless questions about his relationship status, to helping his father dress, go to the bathroom, etc., Paterson as Daniel is in the role of the responder. Unlike dad, who is facing changes over which he has no control, Daniel is able to decide for himself how he will care for his father.
There is an extended family that figures extensively within the play, even though none appear on stage. Dad’s wife, Daniel’s mother, long dead, who is still greatly mourned by Dad. Another son Tim who moved to Toronto to get away from his father, yet who faithfully calls even if dad no longer remembers. There are Daniel’s two sons, approaching the end of childhood and the onset of adulthood, and a ex-wife of Daniel’s who is on the west coast after running away with another man.
As the play progresses we see all of these of these characters stripped away from dad’s memory. There is a moment when we discover that Tim in Toronto is ill, and during that moment it is revealed that Tim is gay. Dad’s response indicates he knew it all along and was never bothered by it, yet almost immediately afterward, as we find out that there is good news for Tim, we realize that Dad no longer remembers who Tim is. If there was impetus for Tim to return from Toronto for a visit it won’t matter if he does.
In the end, the one, inevitable, heartbreaking forgetting occurs. Yet, as Daniel insists this is not the end, but rather one more change that will take place in the relationship between him and his father. Once more, Daniel will choose to continue to love his Father, even if only all that he has left is the physical shell.
Early on in the play, the dad makes a request to go to church, even though he has rejected the church many years previously. Daniel then makes a comment about the Anglican Church, which I can’t recall exactly, but refers to it as being about the Queen, sandwiches and the proper cup of tea, or words to that effect, and having drifted off into oblivion. As an Anglican priest, I have come across that mentality in the Anglican church more than I care to imagine, and would admit that I hope that such a Church does indeed vanish in that ultimately it is no church at all.
At times throughout the play, vestiges of the dad’s faith pop up here and there. In the end though, we see in Daniel, the love that is missing from the church that he has described. Daniel demonstrates the self-giving love that is meant to be at the heart of the Christian life.
I’m not claiming that this is Brown’s intent in writing the play, but there is a clear movement in that direction, ie self-giving love, on the part of Daniel throughout. It starts with Daniel’s increased efforts to care for his father’s physical needs, and end with Daniel being the one who retains and carries on his father’s memories.
I found this play spoke to me in a way that others haven’t in that it is less than three years since I lost my dad, who, although he didn’t deal with Alzheimers went through much of the degeneration shown in the play. As well, the Asper theatre was formerly the Salvation Army Winnipeg Citadel, where I spent my high school and university years, and in which many of my involvements also involved time spent with my dad.
As the earlier reference to the swearing indicates, this play comes with a language warning. It should also come with an emotions warning. If you come to see this show, and I highly recommend that you do, come prepared to be moved and maybe even heartbroken by what you see.
The show is performed at Venue #13 -U of W Asper Centre for Theatre and Film 400 Colony St. – Enter from Balmoral St.