Encore Michigan

Kickshaw’s powerful ‘Milvotchee, Visconsin’ tours all the emotions

Review September 16, 2018 Patrice Nolan

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Milvotchkee, Visconsin is a remarkable play by Laura Jacqmin now enjoying an extraordinary production by Kickshaw Theatre. Directed by Artistic Director Lynn Lammers, it is the story of a wonderfully witty and wise woman named Molly. She is a tour guide for the Wisconsin Concrete Park created by lumberjack-turned-artist Fred Smith; Molly knows more about Fred Smith’s gargantuan pantheon of concrete statues than anyone. At least, she used to.

The play opens as Molly takes us on a tour — the 80th tour attended by her husband Richard. Occasionally Molly wanders off script – wondering what became of Fred Smith during the last 12 years of his life – and she sneaks peeks at her well-thumbed notebook for clues about what comes next. She confides in Richard that she is losing her memories at an alarming rate, and she is pretty sure they are leaking out through a hole in the back of her head.

Molly’s doctor confirms that it’s possible she has a hole in the back of her head – her symptoms point that way. He offers medication that may or may not work, and assures Molly that they’ll know for sure after they perform the autopsy. There is no way to plug the hole, and yes, it will get bigger. Molly’s two adult children are appropriately freaked out, but primarily about what it means to them – embarrassment, inconvenience, and the eclipsing of the person whom they count on for emotional support. Molly’s only source of comfort is the long conversations she has with her husband Richard. The problem is, Richard has been dead for several years.

The brilliant thing about this play is that it tells you everything you need to know about dealing with dementia from the perspective of the person actually dealing with it. We never hear diagnostic words like “Alzheimer’s,” or “Parkinson’s,” or “stroke.” In fact, the manifestation of the disease becomes quite surreal and eventually is physically represented on the stage. We watch Molly’s children exchange concerned looks, offer incomprehensible advice, and subject her to a series of pointless tests she is doomed to fail. We watch Molly find comfort in the therapy group she’s involved with, until a personification of “The Hole” shows up, Darth Vader-like, and ruins everything.

Robbed of her memory, the reliable use of her limbs, and even the ability to speak her mind, Molly struggles to reconcile the person she knows herself to be with the person everyone else judges her to be.

Lynn Lammers maintains a deft touch and is respectful of the emotive hills and valleys that connect us to Molly’s story. The cast of Milvotchkee, Visconsin – to a person – makes the most of each scene, each character, each silent beat. It’s powerful stuff – heart-gripping, dramatically profound and, above all, brutally honest.

Nancy Elizabeth Kammer delivers a performance so compelling that it is reason enough to see and enjoy this production. Without ever leaving the stage, she takes us on a 90-minute journey in which Molly devolves from a clever, independent, no-nonsense woman to a person held prisoner by a disease that would rob her of everything – even her basic human dignity. This production demands a proximity – a solidarity – with Molly’s plight. She is a POW of sorts, as well might any of us be.

Michael Hays, as Molly’s late husband Richard, lives in her memory as the love of her life; he reminds us who Molly really is. The rest of the company, veteran actors who understand the art of making us laugh at ourselves, play multiple roles with gratifying effectiveness. Dave Davies is so good at everything he touches. First as the benign-but-useless country doctor, later as the concrete-artist Fred Smith, a paranoid tourist, and other odd characters, he shows us how humor and humanity can be mined from any role. Aral Gribble is spot-on as the well-meaning but inept man-child who is Molly’s son. He is equally creepy as the personification of Molly’s disease. Sonja Marquis, as Molly’s daughter, gives us a young woman who is genuinely concerned about her mother but totally oblivious to what Molly is going through — at least, at first. She has many fine moments — hopping between characters and investing them with the quirks and insights that make this type of play work so well. Brenda Lane also handles a number of roles well, and is especially fine as a projection of the “real” Molly when her mind and her body fail to cooperate.

The set design by Gabriella S. Csapo uses an abstract, artistically rendered backdrop that suggests Molly’s memories – bits of paper and glass – are being sucked into the void. The design also leans into the mosaic surfaces of Fred Smith’s concrete sculptures, which he embedded with broken glass — metaphorically suggesting Smith’s own dementia following a stroke. The show is lit by Alex Gay, with sound design by Will Myers, costumes by Camille Charara and props by Rebecca MacCreery. Paige Conway is the Stage manager.

As dark as the subject matter of this play is, the script is rich with humor and avoids the bitter, shame-on-you language that’s always a risk with cause-related material. Milvotchkee, Visconsin lifts the torch of enlightenment without blinding the patrons or singeing any eyebrows. It shines a light on what is possibly the most debilitating and ubiquitous disease of our era, and does it in a way that is sure to help us do a better job of understanding and supporting those afflicted.

It does not lecture. It simply asks us to witness, connect, engage and, hopefully, share. Despite the uncomfortable nature of its subject matter, this play is absolutely entertaining, enjoyable and worth seeing. Make the effort.

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Read more about Milvotchkee, Visconsin 09/13–10/06

Read more about Kickshaw Theatre