The Washington Star review printed on the back of my copy of Surviving Grace calls this play, “a two-hour Seinfeld,” and this assessment seems particularly apt. The play is sharp, funny, fast-paced and in places a little absurd. It centres around Kate Griswald, a thirty something TV producer and her sixty five year old mother Grace. Kate’s life is hectic. She’s too busy for relationships. Her main focus in life is her career. She’s so busy juggling responsibilities at work she actually missed the birthday party where her mother’s confusion begins to become apparent to the rest of the family.
Grace’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis interrupts Kate’s hectic career. Suddenly, she not only has to worry about placating the actors in her sitcom, she also has to look out for her mother and her father who’s struggling to deal with his wife’s decline. The initial sections of the play address several key issues couples have to face when one develops Dementia. Jack, (Kate’s father), expresses his sadness about his wife’s condition.
“She can’t hold on to a thought anymore. Her mind is a sieve. It kills me to see her like this.”
He complains about the way their old friends now avoid them because they’re either afraid of Grace’s Alzheimer’s or don’t know what to say.
“Alzheimer’s is hurting out social life. You know what Mom said. Only family hangs in there.”
He even acknowledges the way the American healthcare system can wreck havoc on a couple’s finances and savings if one of them develops an illness like Dementia.
“The house is the only thing the government won’t take from you to pay for this. No Medicaid until I’m broke. I checked. Fifty-five thousand a year this costs.”
Eventually Jack can’t take the responsibility of looking after his wife. Grace is moved to a nursing home and Jack finds himself a younger girlfriend. He chooses fun and excitement over responsibility and leaves Kate to pick up the pieces. The play moves away from the traditional Dementia narrative about half way through. Grace is placed on a programme of experimental, (and completely fictional), new drugs which reverse the symptoms of her Alzheimer’s. She begins to recover her language skills and her memories. She shocks her family by informing them that she’s been cognisant and listening to everything they’ve said over the last few months. She wants to use the time she’s be given to travel and enjoy herself. Having gained a taste for the world beyond her nursing home, Grace refuses to return from her travels and without the Alzheimer’s-blocking drug regime, begins to decline for a second time.
Surviving Grace is a funny, intriguing, irreverent look at a family dealing with a Dementia-diagnosis in a truly unique way. Not every theme is developed fully and I’m still not entirely certain what Vradenburg hoped to achieve with the inclusion of a miracle cure. Yet, it raises lots of questions about consent and responsibility. It made me laugh in several places and offers an interesting alternative to the usual nursing home experience. It even includes a bit of romance.
Surviving Grace was published by Broadway Play Publishing Inc. in 2003.