Shortly before I saw Kickshaw Theatre’s production of Laura Jacqmin’s “Milvotchkee, Visconsin,” I learned that a kind-hearted woman I’d known in high school was recently diagnosed with stage IV breast cancer (while being x-rayed for a completely unrelated condition).
All of which is to say, I’d already been mulling over the ways disease shatters our precarious sense of control over our bodies and our lives when I arrived to watch this play, which deftly, candidly chronicles an aging woman’s (Molly’s) journey into dementia. (Presumably Alzheimer’s, but the script pointedly avoids naming Molly’s illness.)
Jacqmin tells the story through Molly’s point of view – which is less common than approaching it through the lens of loved ones, in part because it’s far more challenging. After all, how do you convey a clear tale from a person who’s losing her grip on memory and reality? Yet Jacqmin makes this bold authorial leap with wit and commitment; and when her script is paired with Kickshaw artistic director Lynn Lammers’ sure-handed direction, the results are, by and large, quite moving.
Molly (Nancy Elizabeth Kammer), a widow, has spent years giving tours of Wisconsin Concrete Park, a strange, real-life roadside attraction that was the brainchild of a man named Fred Smith. The sculptures depict an odd assortment of scenes, built by a man who wasn’t an artist but nonetheless felt compelled to make them, from concrete and pieces of glass (often from beer bottles). We accompany Molly as she gives tours – sometimes with her long-dead husband Richard (Michael Hays) along for the ride – but we also tag along as she sees her doctor (Dave Davies), receives visits from her two grown children (Aral Gribble and Sonja Marquis), gets confused while watching a movie, confronts a haunting personification of her disease (which she diagnoses as a hole in her head), and participates in a support group session.
The meeting’s attendees are played by the show’s supporting cast, which takes on a broad range of roles with impressive alacrity and nuance. And because these characters are all seen through Molly’s perspective, they often skew toward speaking in unvarnished truths, or acknowledged clichés, instead of the usual, carefully-worded euphemisms. Davies shines (and earns laughs) as the candid Country Doctor, but he also embodies aproned sculptor Fred Smith and an in-your-face tourist. Marquis, meanwhile, plays a nurse as well as Molly’s daughter, who goes from seeing her mother’s illness as an inconvenience to seeing it as her last chance to connect with Molly. Gribble plays the hole in Molly’s head – with an eerie assist from Will Myers’ all-too-effective sound design, and a black mask provided by costume designer Camille Charara – as well as Molly’s boy-in-man’s-clothing son. And Brenda Lane plays a tourist to the sculpture park, in addition to a pretentious film festival director and, when Molly is too far gone to communicate with us any longer, an intermediary between the audience and Molly’s thoughts.
That scene, in fact, is among the most heart-wrenching of the play, thanks in large part to Kammer’s uncanny, indelible performance. You’re so consumed by watching a woman who seems genuinely trapped within a mind and body that’s declared mutiny – to such a degree that what Molly actually says bears no resemblance to what she’s thinking – that you’ll feel the urge to look away.
But “Milvotchkee” (and Kammer) won’t let you. Yes, Kickshaw’s 90 minute production provides moments of joy and beauty and laughter as occasional pressure valves, but it ultimately makes you stare something difficult in the face and experience strong feelings about it – whatever they may be.
From a tech standpoint, scenic designer Gabriella S. Csapo presents a spare stage, with two large, raised, silver concentric circles (with dark paint dripping down the edges of the top one), and a dark fabric backdrop, gathered at the center to suggest a kind of black hole (or, more specifically, Molly’s head-hole), and sprinkled with small colored bits to suggest Fred Smith’s broken glass.
Csapo’s abstract set works in close tandem with Alex Gay’s gorgeous, colorful lighting design, which echoes the idea of spectral light (as viewed through the prism of Smith’s glass pieces), and makes Molly’s emotional, wild-ride journey all the more palpable. Plus, props designer Rebecca McCreery provides detailed touches that help bring the whole together.
No matter how much divides us these days, there’s one thing that sadly affects us all, and that’s the sting of illness-related loss – which can take several forms, of course. Sometimes, it’s physical death. Sometimes, as in Molly’s case, a person continues to live and breathe, but she loses her thoughts and personality and free will – the very things that makes her her – within the fog of her mind. It’s terrifying, and it’s maddening, yet it’s also something with which we can all empathize. And because we go on Molly’s unpredictable, bewildering journey with her, she’s ultimately re-endowed with the very dignity that her disease eventually steals from her, and we get glimpses of not only the illness’ distortions, but also flashes of joy, beauty, and memory.
So despite its quirky, hard-to-pronounce title, Kickshaw’s “Milvotchkee, Visconsin” may be one of the few things out there capable of bringing a random sampling of people together these days. It may not be “easy,” but few truly worthwhile things are.
“Milvotchkee, Visconsin” continues its run through October 7th at Ann Arbor’s Interfaith Center for Spiritual Growth. For info, visit https://www.kickshawtheatre.org/.
MAIN PHOTO BY Sean Carter Photography