Theatre Review: ‘Blackberry Winter’ at Actor’s Express

Carolyn Cook
Carolyn Cook

By Manning Harris
fmanningh@gmail.com

Actor’s Express is producing Atlanta native Steve Yockey’s “Blackberry Winter” in repertory with Yockey’s “The Thrush and the Woodpecker” in a National New Play Network “rolling world premiere,” running through Nov. 22. “Blackberry” was first a workshop production at Atlanta’s Out of Hand Theatre, which is co-producing the piece. It is directed by Ariel Fristoe.

Playwright Yockey and Actor’s Express have been good to each other: You may have seen, in recent years, “Octopus,” “Wolves,” and “Pluto,” all performed at the Express. If you did, you remember Yockey’s works often start ominously and may end explosively enough to rival anything on “American Horror Story.” I still shiver a bit when I remember “Wolves.”

So it comes as a pleasant surprise to discover “Blackberry Winter’s” subtle, powerful, and emotional levels: It deals with a woman named Vivienne dealing with her mother’s onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

You may immediately think, uh-oh, a downer for sure. But that’s before you discover that Vivienne is played by the magnificent Carolyn Cook.

I’ve been fortunate to see a few outstanding one-woman plays: Zoe Caldwell’s Broadway performance as Maria Callas in “Master Class” comes immediately to mind, as does Estelle Parsons in “Miss Margarida’s Way.” I’m happy to say that Ms. Cook immediately joins that sterling, elite group with her work in “Blackberry Winter.”

“I don’t drink; but lately I’ve become jealous of people who do,” Ms. Cook as Vivienne confides to the audience. But before you think you can become too chummy with her, she reminds us, “This smile is made of granite.” Yockey gives her some extremely witty lines to amuse herself and tease the audience.

Wit in a play about Alzheimer’s? Yes, and carefully hidden sadness, along with mounting frustration and gradually imploding anger. But Vivienne is a well brought up Southern lady, and when naughty words occasionally escape her lips, she makes herself put a quarter in a “swearing jar.” Quite a few quarters get dropped in that jar.

The play makes me think of Susan Sontag’s famous essay “Illness as Metaphor,” later expanded to “AIDS and Its Metaphors.” Yockey explores the psychological underpinnings of those affected by relatives or close friends who are ill; and it is Ms. Cook’s brilliance as an actor that hypnotizes and carries us along.

Kat Conley’s set is bold and clever, consisting mainly of a stage full of short pedestals, most of which hold various props that Vivienne will use. For example there’s an unopened letter which almost certainly will recommend that Vivienne transfer her mother from the “Residence Inn,” an assisted living facility, to a full-fledged nursing home.

I haven’t mentioned that Vivienne knows that Alzheimer’s runs in her family; she herself is obviously not immune.
I also haven’t told you that actors Joe Sykes and Maia Knispel play the Gray Mole and the White Egret in a story that Vivienne is writing to grimly amuse herself. Both Sykes and Knispel are fine; there are no small parts, as you know. By the way, the play is a fast 90 minutes, no intermission.

“Vivienne, your mom is going to die; you need to figure out how to live.” A doctor has said this to her. May I say that what you need to figure out, if you love superb acting, is way to see Carolyn Cook hold an audience in the palm of her hand. Please check the schedule carefully; the two plays are performed on different nights at different times.

For tickets and information, visit actors-express.com.

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