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“This is a saga,” says playwright Trish Vradenburg. “This play makes Leon Uris look like nothing. The audience loves this playand I would know.”
Indeed. Vradenburg is talking about her own play, Surviving Grace. It focuses on the evolution of a
mother-daughter relationship after the former succumbs to Alzheimer’s
but takes a speculative turn when the mother jolts temporarily back to normality with the advent of a miracle drug.
Vradenburg would know about the topic, too: Her mother and father-in-law both suffered from Alzheimer’s. “Our kids are cooked,” she says cheerily, referring to the disease’s tendency to skip generations. That breezy affect evokes Vradenburg’s former incarnation as a small-screen scribe: She helped pen episodes of sitcoms Designing Women, Kate & Allie, and Family Ties. But Vradenburg claims a television background is counterproductive when it comes to writing for the East Coast theater elite.
“The critics went nuts,” she recalls of the play’s 1996 New York premiere. Then titled The Apple Doesn’t Fall… and directed by none other than Leonard Nimoy, it closed after only one performance. New York Times theater critic Vincent Canby called it “ghastly.” “What they objected to was that I was a sitcom writer from L.A.,” she says.
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Vradenburg now maintains a D.C. home with her husband, an executive vice president of AOL Time Warner. The two, unsurprisingly, are active promoters of Alzheimer’s research. They hope that the Kennedy Center’s full production of the playwhich has undergone countless rewrites since that “ghastly” commentwill bring greater congressional attention to the disease. “There are 4 million people with this and at least that many or double who are caretakers,” Vradenburg says. “And with all the aging boomers, this society will go bankrupt if we don’t address it.”
“Five or 10 years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine any treatment for Alzheimer’s,” notes Surviving Grace director Jack Hofsiss. “This play is a projection of a very possible reality. You see it in close-up.”
Given the play’s emphasis on family and disability, Hofsiss seems well-matched to the material. (He was, ironically, the second choice to direct.) A Georgetown University alumnus who’s earned success with the Tony Award-winning revival of The Elephant Man and with the mother-daughter-themed play Jar the Floor, Hofsiss had a visceral response to Surviving Grace. “I had a diving accident in 1985, and I’m in a wheelchair now,” he says. “So I know what it’s like to have a second lease on life.”
Vradenburg says that such reactions to the play are gratifying, not least because of her own isolation during the course of her mother’s illness. She admits that a play about Alzheimer’s might not strike many theatergoers as a terribly fun evening. “I take my chances with that,” she says. “I mean, nobody’s expecting Alzheimer’s! The Musical to come out anytime soon. But my play is a journeyand it’s funny and it’s sad. The main character uses comedy against her emotionimagine thatbut it’s OK, and I want people to know they’re not alone.”
In response to an inquiry about whether plays such as Proof, As Is, and Wit may have changed audience expectations of dramatic representations of disease, Vradenburg doesn’t miss a beat.
“This is considerably less excruciating than Wit,” she says. Neda Ulaby
Surviving Grace is at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater to July 15. For more information, call (202) 467-4600.