Linguistics professor Alice Howland’s life-altering battle with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease grips with heartbreaking poignancy in Christine Mary Dunford’s 2013 drama Still Alice, excellently presented in its regional premiere courtesy of Young at Heart Players at the Dayton Playhouse.
Based on Lisa Genova’s 2007 novel and notably filmed in 2014 featuring Julianne Moore’s Academy Award-winning performance, Still Alice chronicles the complexities, shock, misunderstanding, and frustration that arises within the Howland family as Alice navigates her journey. As she undergoes a three-year race against time, an imperative component at the root of Annie Pesch’s expert direction, her supportive husband John as well as her two children Thomas and Lydia ultimately come to terms with her farewell. And in a surprisingly refreshing and theatrically fulfilling departure from the film, Alice is joined at nearly every moment by Herself, a character conveying her crucial inner thoughts.
In one of her finest performances, Cassandra Engber, frequently seen over the years with Dayton Theatre Guild, marvelously embodies Alice’s tear-jerking duality, an independent, vibrant intellectual celebrated around the world slowly evaporating into fragments of what she once was. With compellingly believable intent, avoiding melodrama or histrionics, Engber absolutely pulls the audience into the character’s confused angst. Certain situations find Alice inadvertently heading to the office in her pajamas, forgetting a family recipe and failing to recognize her daughter, but she remains a genuine beacon of warmth, love and resilience nonetheless. It’s a delicate balance, but Engber pulls it off splendidly, especially as emotions run high and stakes are raised as the disease takes hold. And as the disease progresses, Pesch and Logan Dabney’s efficient set strikingly disappears bit by bit, heightening the play’s riveting subtext to profound effect.
Additionally, Rachel Oprea is equally impactful and potent as Herself, attempting to make sense of Alice’s new way of living. Engber and Oprea’s terrific chemistry is key to the inherent compatibility unfolding in their insightful scenes, which is particularly notable regarding Oprea, astutely understanding the necessity of allowing Engber to take precedence in their interactions. Steve Strawser, in perhaps his most dynamic, emotional performance, is a relatable source of strength as John, trying to maintain his busy career while taking on the challenging role of chief caregiver at home and at doctor’s appointments. Brandon Shockney and Chelsey Hall are also winning as Thomas and Lydia, whose valiant attempts at caregiving are not effectively aligned with their present paths of fatherhood and a life in the theatre, respectively. Cher Collins (Dr. Tamara/Beth) and Shawn Hooks (Dr. Davis/Dan) complete the cast in very grounded, credibly concerned portrayals. In fact, Hooks is at the center of one of the play’s best scenes which finds Alice and John contemplating advance treatment following a series of memory questions.
“I miss myself,” Alice says. “My used to be self.” Without a doubt, this meaningful play, fittingly offered just in time for the holidays as the pleasures of family and memories become priorities, is an invitation encouraging and inspiring us all to simply embrace life to the fullest each and every day.
Still Alice continues through Dec. 1 at the Dayton Playhouse, 1301 E. Siebenthaler Ave., Dayton. Performances are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. The play is performed in 100 minutes without intermission. Tickets are $15 for adults and $12 seniors and students (open seating). Call (937) 654-0400 to make a reservation. For more information, visit youngatheartplayers.com.
In addition, a portion of the proceeds will benefit the Miami Valley Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.