James Blossom has Alzheimer's disease. He is growing unable to tell fantasy from reality. He regularly thinks his daughter is his wife. And he has become potentially dangerous to himself and others, so his daughter moves him into a nursing home--a nice nursing home, but a nursing home. He is not happy, but he is also not ready to roll over and die. Little by little, he adapts. Blossom is an engaging character, and as we get to know him better, we like him all the more.
This is James Blossom:
Designed by Spencer Lott
Photo: Maria Baranova
Blossom, running at Dixon Place through September 24, was written and directed by Spencer Lott, who has an extra creativity gene (or 12!), a big heart, a huge desire to entertain, and a similarly huge desire to tell a real, believable, and heart-breaking story. He mostly succeeds--and succeeds big--but the show's flaws keep Lott from hitting the grand slam that he surely can.
First, Blossom's strengths: It is a feast for the eyes and a delight for the funny bone. Lott's creativity expresses itself in a darling submarine, undulating jelly fish, remarkably convincing zero-gravity floating, an exciting motorcycle ride, a shark attack, and dozens of other creations and set pieces, all developed from simple materials, artistic brilliance, and the problem-solving of an engineer.
The weaknesses are fewer but important, the main one being that Alzheimer's is a huge topic than can't be accurately depicted with a focus on fantasy. Lott knows the basic Alzheimer's tropes: losing track of who your loved ones are, losing one's home, losing one's identity, losing, losing, losing. He touches on nursing home sex, nods to the bank-emptying costs of Alzheimer's care, skims the toll that the disease takes on caregivers, and acknowledges that people with Alzheimer's may become violent. But Alzheimer's isn't a thing of touches, nods, skimming, and acknowledgments; it's grueling, daily, horrible, full of frustration and anger, a living death. Lott succumbs to the unfortunately common movie-TV-theatre version of "nice Alzheimer's," where patients mostly remain charming, and the awful years of being warehoused, diapered, a proverbial shell of one's former self, are glossed over or skipped altogether.
I understand that I am attacking the core of Blossom while extolling its outsides. And it is a lovely show just the way it is. But it seems to me that Blossom could be improved by going in one of two directions: Lott giving Blossom a less horrible disease that still affects memory, or Lott using his prodigious creativity to actually wrestle with the ugliness of Alzheimer's. The later is a tall order and would likely result in a less crowd-pleasing show, but one that could be a breakthrough piece of art.
Of course, it's easy enough for me to sit here and try to refocus Lott's work. I'd be lucky to have 10% of his brilliance, and I don't want to seem disrespectful. In reality, these comments come out of a place of total respect. Lott is amazing. Blossom is amazing. But there's more there for Lott to mine. I hope he does.
PS. I'd like to give the wonderful Dixon Place a plug. They put on at least one show every day of the year and they strive to pay their artists, which is a large goal for a small theatre presenting so much work and charging reasonable prices. They present theatre, dance, puppetry, music, literature. They give artists a chance to show works-in-progress to an audience.
One way they make money is by running a little bar in the lobby, often with live music. It's a comfortable place, and every time you buy a soda or a beer, you're supporting the arts. If you go to see Blossom--and you should--get there early and kick back with a glass. Or leave time after the show to hang out a bit. It's a fun way to keep a vitally important theatre in business.
(press ticket, 3rd row on the aisle--and yes, my friend and I did buy drinks at the bar)