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Review: ‘Taking Care Of Mimi’ Is No Mini Task

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"Taking Care of Mimi" closes the Detroit Repertory Theatre's 2011-12 season.  (Photo: Bruce Millan)

“Taking Care of Mimi” closes the Detroit Repertory Theatre’s 2011-12 season. (Photo: Bruce Millan)

By John Quinn, EncoreMichigan.com

Art encourages thought. Art invites exploration of the uncomfortable. Art allows an individual audience member to share personal emotions and experiences with others similarly touched. Art is hard at work in Marilynn Barner Anselmi’s provocative comedy-drama “Taking Care of Mimi,” opening this week at the Detroit Repertory Theatre. The plot is driven by the devastating effect of Alzheimer’s disease, both on its victim and on his or her family. For this writer, the emotion and experience are all too real.

The subtitle of “Taking Care of Mimi” is “A morality murder mystery.” Mimi (Barbara Jacobs-Smith) may have been a vibrant, caring soul, but soon after the loss of her husband, she began the dark fall into dementia. Daughters Susan (Angela King) and Harriet (Nicole Michelle Haskins) have “split the caretaking.” Susan handles the finances and Harriet, assisted by Susan’s son Hal (Scott Norman), handle Mimi. And Mimi is a handful.

Mimi dies in her sleep and foul play is indicated. Detective Helms (David Glover) tries to determine which suspect had the best motive and opportunity to end the misery. Was it Susan, a real estate success story who becomes appalled at her mother’s extreme condition? Was it compassionate, patient Harriet, long suffering primary caregiver who sacrificed her independence for her mother? Or was it young Hal, who gave up an education and social life for insults and dirty diapers? Was it an outsider, like veterinarian Luis Ferraro (Harold Uriah Hogan), who employs both Harriet and Hal part time? He regrets the emotional toll on his employees, and has access to the very drugs found in the autopsy.

Anselmi’s script is long on plot and character, yet short on dialogue. It doesn’t distract with side plots; and the play, only some 90 minutes, never lags. It helps to read the program before the houselights dim (an oversight I’m going to correct), since that’s where we’re told the time is “The present and a few weeks in the past.” Detective Helms is investigating the death in the “now;” scenes leading up to Mimi’s death are flashbacks. In this play, as in life itself, there are no pat resolutions, not even a conclusive conclusion. So subtle is the playwright’s touch that a major element of plot only fell into place for me as I drove home. Even though I have to write this later, to be deeply mulling what I experienced while driving is rare – and dangerous.

Barbara Busby’s direction keeps us engaged and questioning; her cast turns in fine performances all around. If Barbara Jacobs-Smith commands extra attention, it’s due to her impish turn as “mean old Momma” Mimi. The script gives her a wealth of funny lines; I find myself uncomfortable laughing at a character when humor derives from mental illness. But from personal experience, I know some situations are so tragic that the only sane response is laughter through the tears.

My mother and paternal aunts cared for my Alzheimer’s afflicted grandmother. I saw my sophisticated, loving Grandma reduced to communicating in gibberish, a panic in her eyes. I can relate to Harriet’s observation that “she’s still in there,” trying to get out. My mother cared for her mother, who did not have Alzheimer’s, but in old age became eccentric and manipulative.

While no one in my family would ever think euthanasia is “the good death,” I know the thought “they’d be better off dead” often crossed my mind. Lately my mother has experienced such severe short-term memory loss I have begun, as the child who lives nearest her, to assume cooking duties. Will I eventually live to be so dependent? If I do, I hope I have the fortitude of my forbearers and take inspiration from poet Dylan Thomas:

“Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

For tickets and showtimes, go to www.encoremichigan.com.

John Quinn reviews local theater productions for http://www.EncoreMichigan.com, the state’s most comprehensive resource for news and information about Michigan’s professional theaters. Follow them on Facebook @EncoreMichigan.com.

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