Elegant in her ivory dressing gown, Mary, who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, can still waltz beautifully. Her husband Gene, meanwhile, who suffers from an undisclosed terminal illness, never removes either his Santa hat or his mask-like, slightly strained passive aggressive smile. Though Gene is, as Mary tells us, both her loving husband and a connection with her fading self (‘you are my memory’, she repeats), we soon begin to wonder whether he has taken his I-know-best attitude too far and is (re)constructing Mary’s memories to suit himself, distorting her reality.
The joint decision by Mary and Gene – delicately played by Susan Tracy and Martin Wimbush – to kill themselves sits at the heart of Kevin Kautzman’s Dream of Perfect Sleep, Together, with a car engine and a hosepipe, on the floor of their garage, they have decided to end things.
As Mary’s mind becomes ever more full of gaps and misplacings, Max Pappenheim’s production intriguingly makes the audience ever more aware of how much of a blank slate we are, of our own gaps and absences, our lack of information. Only slowly do we discover what is going on in this stifling living room. Gene’s revelation that, despite his emphatic festive preparations, it is not really Christmas is a fantastic jolt, as is his later revelation that this will be the last family gathering before the elderly couple take their own lives.
Often, the production knowingly blurs boundaries between the audience’s perceptions, Mary’s world, and the ‘reality’ of the play. For example, we hear Mary’s favourite TV show blaring out when she taps the remote, but Gene later reveals that he sold the TV long ago and that Mary only thinks she is watching her show.
Mostly, though, this blurring takes the form of insistent references to the audience itself, as a ‘river of faces’, with the characters pausing to reflect on how ‘I feel like I’m being watched’ (accompanied with direct gesturing towards particular audience members). These gestures towards and through the fourth wall grow to crescendo at the end of the play, and at times they are in danger of feeling clunky, though they are certainly replete with potential meaning (are we in the audience complicit in Gene and Mary’s death? Have we been dreamt up by Mary? Are we dead souls in Hades labouring under the illusion that we are alive?) But it was not always easy to see what this approach added to the play, especially when the characters notice us so explicitly.
The production donates its profits to Alzheimer’s and dementia charities and some of the dialogue draws on common, but deeply affecting, experiences of living with someone with Alzheimer’s. Gene has to explain to Mary anew each day that he is dying, for example: for him, this painful task takes great patience and strength, but she receives the revelation vaguely. At times, though, I felt that, rather than embodying dementia in all its illucidity, and with all the tricks and clever politenesses that Alzheimer’s sufferers often use to hide their symptoms, Mary becomes more of a mouthpiece for the play’s desire to explain Alzheimer’s to its audience. She ventriloquizes a list of symptoms with great lucidity and unabashed freedom: ‘I’m a ball of yarn unravelling’, ‘I am so terribly sad, but don’t know why’, and so on.
Their two children Robert and Melissa, despite being in their 30s and 40s, bicker like five year olds. The family are constantly missing connections, never latching on to each other with tenderness, with the result that the end of the play comes a little unhinged. Melissa’s supportive response to Gene and Mary’s desire to kill themselves (‘that’s so sweet’) felt incomprehensibly placid, even taking into account the fact that she is habitually stoned. And it seemed implausible that the siblings would just sit there, listening to the car engine start up and take their parents lives, and do nothing about it, drinking in instead the fascinating experience of being watched by ‘the faces’.
Strength is a running theme throughout Dream of Perfect Sleep. Mary’s vase (into which she spits her dementia medication: no wonder her flowers are dying) depicts Hercules, or as Robert glosses, ‘a big strong dude’. Robert himself is obsessed with being a man, ‘the strong one’. Kautzman’s play is at its most potent when it speaks of the often superhuman strength needed just to keep going each day when dealing with Alzeimer’s, when deciding to stay alive can be worse and more unbearable than choosing to die.