“What’s more frightening than death?
On a day when our Prime Minister declared dementia to be “one of [our] greatest enemies of humanity” as a new push for a cure was launched, it seems apt that the Finborough’s latest play Dream of Perfect Sleep should open. For dementia is just one of the issues that Kevin Kautzman has woven into his family drama as two adult children return to the family home for Christmas to a father suffering from a terminal illness and a mother who is no longer compos menti.
Mary and Gene are an elderly couple whose devoted relationship is being severely tested by their failing health. She suffers from vertigo as well as dementia and so only has a tenuous grip on reality, which makes his condition all the more tragic as he’s her primary carer and even his infinite patience is being tested. So they’ve made a decision and they’ve invited their estranged kids – recovering addict Robert and new-ager Melissa – to share it.
The opening section of the play is beautifully done, heart-breakingly sincere in showing the deep love between Mary and Gene (the Christmas tree is a gorgeous touch) as well as the deep frustrations that characterise declining health. But as it seems we’re heading into tear-jerker territory, Kautzman moves into stranger, denser waters as we delve into Mary’s internal fancies of being an ancient fertility goddess, watching her family watch on helplessly as they debate the inadequacies of the care system.
Susan Tracy is superbly sensitive at portraying the complexity of a person whose mental health is abandoning them yet still showing flashes of the adored wife and mother she is, and Martin Wimbush partners her brilliantly, exasperated love in his eyes as he cares for her and her caprices and a resigned ruefulness when dealing with the age-old awkwardness with his son. Cory English’s garrulous Robert and Lisa Carrucio Came’s measured Melissa also hit the right notes.
But whilst Max Pappenheim’s production is well cast and looks great in Holly Seager’s traverse design, it never quite seems to hit the emotional beats suggested by the plot. In avoiding the obvious route, Kautzman neuters a significant proportion of its impact and what he does accomplish is intriguing but not quite as interesting as what is left untold. Still, the intensity it does achieve is often touching and in Tracy and Wimbush, superbly acted.