Alice Howland is a high-achieving Harvard professor. When she is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in her early 50s, however, her world comes crashing down. Still Alice is the story of Alice and her family as they grapple with the cruel realities of a debilitating mental health condition and the figurative loss of a family member whom they love.
Sharon Small plays Alice, and she handles the portrayal very well. She strikes the balance between a confident, empowered career woman who has life in her control, and then the vulnerable, helpless patient who cannot complete basic tasks.
The production uses Alice’s two children, Tom and Lydia, as anchors to show different sides of her personality. While Lydia (Alaïs Lawson) is the wild child, her proclivity towards the arts makes her better prepared for her mother’s unpredictable behaviour. Martin Marquez does a great job as her husband, John, as he faces the dilemma of what his wife would want for his career if she were fully aware of what was happening around her. Worth a mention is also Jonathan Fensom’s set – full of clutter and props that mirror Alice’s mind. As she slowly loses her thoughts, one stand at a time, the set is slowly cleared away too, until very little remains.
The production does have a hard act to follow – Lisa Genova’s novel is fabulous and the subsequently adapted 2015 Oscar-winning movie is both well-known and was well-received, even though this play was written before that. It is difficult as an audience member to not compare the two, and those that have seen the film will find themselves questioning why the diagnosis scene isn’t kept as it is, or why the hard-hitting “Butterfly scene” is altered.
That said, it is only fair that this play be taken on its own merit. And in that, the production does a wonderful job. Small’s poignant performance will stay with the viewer a long time after the play is done.