The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble is at once hilarious and heartbreaking and shows the beautiful complexity of a family as their matriarch and keystone, Bernice, is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Over the course of 100 minutes or so, we watch Bernice (Susan Gilmour) and each of her “bambinos” try to come to terms with what the diagnosis means for them individually and their family. We meet the the heart-on-her-sleeve oldest child, Sarah (Patricia Zentilli), the painfully awkward youngest child, Peter (Jason Chinn), and Iris (Clarice Eckford), the narrator and middle child who shares a special connection with her mother. Theatre Network’s The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, playing at the Roxy Theatre until November 23, is a moving exploration of how the Trimble family copes with Bernice’s disease, declining health, and ultimately the question of how or if one can remain dignified in the face of such a terrifying disease.
Beth Graham’s script does justice to the complexities of families and family interactions. The characters are distinctly different, but at the same time, they’re not so extreme that they seem unrealistic. The script draws on our prejudices about oldest/middle/youngest children without boxing the characters into those prejudices, which allows the audience to fast-track the establishment of those characters and to quickly identify with them and their varying reactions to their mother’s disease.
With Canada’s aging population, this show is very relevant to our time no matter our own personal situation. Alzheimer’s disease itself features prominently in The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, but what’s beautiful about the script is that it doesn’t centre on it and it’s devastating effects on Bernice. Instead, Beth focuses on the family and their collective and individual explorations of what the diagnoses means. Although the audience might not be in the same situation as the Trimble’s, we can relate to their reactions and become engaged in thinking through questions of “Is that what I would do? How would I handle this?” Would I be like Sarah and immediately (and loudly) express all of my worries and try to set out an action plan? Would I be like the awkward Peter, who bottles everything up and tries to escape the situation? Or would I be Iris, who puts on a brave face and reassures her mother and siblings, all while trying to “be the calm in the storm”?
One particular technique I loved of Beth’s was the incorporation of Iris’ attempts to remember French. Among the people I knew who went to primary and secondary school in Edmonton, it seems that most of them were required to take a least one French class in school. I’m not sure how others in the audience felt, but for me, her struggles to remember the French she knows is somewhere in the back of her brain engaged me in the same action and helped me experience what those who have Alzheimer’s must face every day.
I really loved the cast Theatre Network put together for this performance. Above and beyond the great script they were given, it really felt like everyone put the essence of their characters into their bodies. Jason Chinn’s Peter was so stiff and uncomfortable it almost hurt to watch him. Patricia Zentilli played oldest child Sarah’s over-the-top reactions – both physical and verbal – as being so genuine that it didn’t seem exaggerated. As Bernice, Susan Gilmour’s transformation from charismatic and commanding to confused and pained was absolutely heartbreaking. And as Iris, Clarice Eckford was malleable and ever-changing, but not so fast that we had whiplash. She allowed us to see when and why she was flowing from one state to the next. I also loved seeing her physical embodiment of the struggle between being calm and collected and barely hanging on to her composure. Pay special attention to her hands – maybe it’s just because of my own poor physical coordination abilities, but I was struck by the control she must have over her body to have her hands constantly trembling through a large portion of the play.
Theatre Network’s presentation of The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble runs at the Roxy Theatre until November 23. Tickets are $27 and can be bought through Theatre Network. There will be a free talk back at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 15 after the performance.
PS – check out the What it is Podcast’s latest episode, which features an interview with Clarice Eckford.