With a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Dramaturgy/Dramatic Criticism, Alyssa Dyksterhouse has over 20 years of professional theater experience. She recently returned from the living in the Pacific Northwest where she wrote about arts and culture for Seattle Weekly and Seattle Gay Scene.
Photo: Barbara E. Robertson (Annis) and Dan Flannery (Robeck) in Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s WINTER (Photo by Michael Brosilow)
Review: WINTER at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble
By Alyssa Dyksterhouse
The idea of “Death with Dignity” has been emotionally evolving since Jack Kevorkian — AKA Dr. Death. In 2009, a friend diagnosed with ALS taught me the euphemism “Going to Switzerland.” Then last summer the internet wept waterworks of inspiration as incurably ill California resident Betsy Davis hosted a celebration culminating with her self-chosen death. Rivendell Theatre’s production of WINTER left me unsure about the issue.
Inspired by Margaret Pabst Battin’s story ROBECK, IN ENDING LIFE: Ethics and the Way We Die, this new play by Julie Jenson tells the story of Annis (Barbara E. Robertson) who is slowly slipping towards dementia and wants to end her life while still recognizable. She and her husband have a pact but he is not ready. When her sons return home, one of them begins to make different plans.
Jenson’s witty script precisely poises on a precipice between thought-provoking and preachy. Luckily co-directors Megan Carney and Mark Ulrich proficiently prevent this production from plunging into a pedantic pocket. In fact, the production extends entertaining exchanges; notably between Annis’s sons Evan (Steve Haggard) and Roddy (Sean Cooper). Though somewhat overwritten—the yuppie and the ne’er-do-well millennial seem stereotypical and strained—their palpable animosity left me chortling as they mulled their mother’s mortality. Yes, death jokes.
Veteran actress Robertson subtly captures the anguish and anxiety associated with diminishing mental capacities. As a writer, I cringed for the former poet who cannot remember rudimentary words and forgot how to use a typewriter. Dan Flannery — as her husband Robeck — conveys the contravention and compassion caused by being a default caregiver. Thus, their moments on the stage together were simultaneously tender and uncomfortable; for example, when he completely comprehends her confusion and endeavors in calming her.
The design elements further draw us into Annis’ world. In preparation for her plan, she boxed up her home and organized them to give to her sons. Elvia Moreno’s set conveys the chaos and control of her mental state. Most remarkable is a sound (Robert Hornbostle and LJ Luthringer) and light (Michael Mahlum) effect executed every time Annis loses a “piece of time.”
At the end of the day, Robeck determines he has unfinished business while Annis looks forward to stepping through the portal of death. In real life Stephen Hawking forages on, and Betsy Davis left this world on her terms. Is one approach better than the other? Leaving WINTER, I experienced cognitive dissonance. Annis evoked empathy; yet “Death with Dignity” Laws are designed for people with terminal illness of which dementia is not. However, addressing our mortality and quality of life is profoundly personal. I don’t have an answer but am thankful for this production for igniting an inquiry.