“I always thought it would be me first,” says the wife about her aging, brain-scrambled husband. “I had cancer scares twice.” Instead, she’s the healthy one, the patient, organized one, who sometimes speaks directly to us (or to herself).
Two distinguished Chicago actors—Rondi Reed and Francis Guinan—play the couple in Such Small Hands, a new play by Adam Szymkowicz. (Both actors are Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members.) Kane Repertory Theatre is streaming the play through October 18 in its New Play Lab workshop series. The workshop designation means the play is in an early stage and the performance is done with minimal (in this case, just five hours) rehearsal. B.J. Jones, artistic director of Northlight Theatre, directs the virtual reading of a sad but inspiring story about the power of love and marital longevity. It’s a story that is all too familiar to those with a friend or relative sinking into dementia.
The play portrays a day in the life of Marie and Paul, a long-married couple who live in a small city in New England. Paul has cancer and is in great pain. The day is a series of circular conversations. Marie serves breakfast, which Paul doesn’t eat. Marie serves lunch (tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches). Paul says he loves her lunches. Paul doesn’t eat.
Is there sugar? You don’t use sugar in your coffee. You haven’t used sugar in 40 years.
Do we have milk? James drinks milk. No, James is married and has a child. They’re coming to visit next week.
Can we go to the library? We just went yesterday. Or did we?
Is James sleeping? I want to talk to James, I want to talk to my son. Is he in school? James is at work. He doesn’t live here any more. Remember, he’s married and he has a son, Warren.
Paul says, “I’m tired. I hurt. I want it to end. I want to go before I stop being me.”
In occasional monologues, Marie tells us some of the backstory.
“He’s in pain and he says he wants to die. Sometimes, he’s still there…inside…. The doctor wants him to go to the hospital so they can manage the pain. But he doesn’t want drugs. “
Marie: Tomorrow will be better.
Paul: Tomorrow is never better.
Marie: How do you know? You never remember yesterday.
In one heartbreaking scene, Paul decides he wants to write a final letter, for Marie to read at his funeral. He dictates a letter to her, which starts, “Dear Everyone. I lived a long life, a full life. I had a loving family—everything a man could want. I have no regrets…..” Marie dutifully takes down his words, in an event that apparently has happened frequently before.
Such Small Hands is a portrait of a long marriage. (The title refers to Paul’s obsession that his hands are shrinking and look much smaller.) In a talkback after the reading, Rondi Reed describes it as a chamber piece, with its very tight focus.
Playwright Szymkowicz was asked if he had personal experience with someone fading into dementia. He said yes, and that his son was 3 years old when he was writing the play. Sometimes a conversation with a 3-year-old is like talking with someone with dementia, he said.
Such Small Hands runs just under 70 minutes and is followed by a talkback with the playwright, director and actors. It’s available on YouTube until 7:30pm Sunday, October 18. Viewing is free, but Kane Repertory will appreciate a donation. The recommended gift is $25 but any amount is welcome.