“Still Alice”—Unforgettable

Still AliceAdapted from neuroscientist Lisa Genova’s novel, “Still Alice” takes a straightforward look at the sad, terrifying and difficult-to-bear illness of Alzheimer’s. But bear it we must.

The story of Alice Howland (the remarkable Julianne Moore), a fifty-something linguistics professor happily married to a fellow intellectual (Alec Baldwin) and the mother of three adult children (the youngest superbly played by Kristen Stewart) could be a story about any of us. After receiving a diagnosis for Alzheimer’s, Alice attempts to deal with the challenges of the disease as intelligently and courageously as possible. The results are frightening, heartbreaking, and all too humbling as we see a woman who has relied on language for her professional career and personal identity, begin to lose her grasp on what is important and who she is. Growing increasingly distant, Alice may still be Alice in body, but the Alice her family, friends, and colleagues know is slipping away, a lost soul.

Julianne Moore (who has been nominated for the fifth time for an Academy Award], manages the role of Professor Alice Howland with grace and dignity. “Still Alice” is a restrained portrait of a highly successful woman struggling to retain some sense of self, while her family copes with the gradual disappearance of the wife and mother they’d always known and loved. The family is in a vortex of ambiguous loss: a state of knowing and not knowing the extent of loss from the ravages of Alzheimer’s. Films about terminal illness can be difficult to make. The inevitability of death from disease can either be banal or melodramatic, wallowing in misery or cheap emotional manipulation. This movie is neither.

“Still Alice” is a must-see, an unforgettable film even after Alice forgets.

“Orphans”–Fostering and Festering

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This year the 1983 play “Orphans” by Lyle Kessler is nominated for two Tony Awards: Outstanding  Revival of a Broadway Play and Outstanding Featured Actor (Tom Sturridge).  I hope that this emotional tour-de-force wins both awards!

This play debuted with Ben Foster (from “Six Feet Under”) as Treat, Tom Sturridge (“Being Julia”) as Philip, and Alec Baldwin (“30 Rock”) as Harold.  The story opens in a  dilapidated Philadelphia house shared by two brothers: Treat, a small-time hoodlum, and his younger mentally disabled brother Philip, who hides in a closet when Treat is not home. Philip is afraid of life outside.  With dire warnings from Treat every day, Philip darts around the house, jumping from couch to stairs, like Spider-Man or a flying squirrel. Treat has forced his brother to live a dangerously isolated existence through lies and insults.

The brothers’ delicate and codependent relationship is thrown off-balance after Treat brings home a drunk man, Harold, whom he has met in a bar and has kidnapped.  Harold has a criminal past and a suitcase full of stocks and bonds. When Treat’s plan goes awry, Harold hires him to be his bodyguard and, having himself been an orphan, sees some of himself in the two young men.  Soon he moves in and becomes their surrogate father.

Since the two brothers have lived alone since they were kids, Harold appears to be the kind of father the boys have always longed for.  He introduces the ways of a gentleman (fashion, international food, home decor) and Philip ingests everything. But Harold poses a threat to Treat who has relished his power as Philip’s father figure.  Yet Treat’s role as a father has not only wounded his younger brother but also borders on self-destruction. Treat’s discovery that Philip has taught himself how to read is a heartbreaking and emotionally explosive scene. (Think “The Glass Menagerie” when the mother realizes her daughter is more aware than she had assumed.)

The three actors eviscerate each other–ferociously–but also desperately need each other. The ferocity of the rage is raw and intimidating, unforgettable and daunting.  As Treat Foster’s rage is a dangerous assault on himself.  Baldwin’s Harold is genuinely caring and enormously humorous.

And Sturridge is playing the sort of role that comes with “Tony nominee” blazoned on his chest: a mentally challenged, socially deprived character. When he realizes the role his brother has played in stunting his development, he manically flies from the couch to the stair banister and back, sweat dripping and mucus running down his chin and t-shirt.  He has inhabited the part as if possessed by it.  The physicality is astonishing.

By the end of the play the audience was stunned, most especially by Sturridge’s astounding acting. Philip may be the unstable character in “Orphans”, but he’s the one you remember.A contemporary “Death of a Salesman” meets “Glass Menagerie”, the play surprises at every level. This play deserves to be televised as well as produced in other venues.   “Orphans” well deserves its two Tony nominations.