By Bradley Rohlf
“A Tree, Falling” puts on display the tragedy of memory loss, alongside the joy and sorrow of life. It is an impressive production all around, and leaves the audience with plenty to ponder.
The Upstream Theater play follows a series of visits between Lola, a volunteer “friendly visitor,” and Lenny, an octogenarian suffering from dementia. Lenny, played by Jerry Vogel, is largely unaware of his failing memory. His whole experience is immediate, and when confronted with facts about his health or past, he rationalizes them away.
Lola, played by Kari Ely, is keen to make a connection with Lenny, and makes many failed attempts to spur his memory. A relatively one-sided friendship is established between the two, because Lenny’s mind does not allow him to solidify who Lola is.
The production design was quite ambitious, and Director Michael Dorsey and his team find success in all aspects.
Scenic Designer Cristie Johnston presents us with the necessary furniture, windows, and appliances to suggest a home. But contrasting with those are a large spiral form painted on the floor, and two imposing spiral structures flanking the scene and receding upstage. Dressed in muted blues, purples, and yellows, these whorls are at once whimsical and nightmarish. The juxtaposition of the familiar against these alien, monolithic forms effectively set the tone for the play.
There are a few technical “magic tricks” that succeed, thanks to Katie Schoenfeld’s prop design, Tony Anselmo’s lighting design, and Dorsey’s sound design. These effects are technical achievements, yet so subtle in their presentation to go generally unnoticed in service of telling the story. The music selection provides appropriate reflection on the preceding action and a connection to the following scene.
Ely and Vogel achieve a warm chemistry on stage to bring this two-hander to life. Ely’s portrayal of the middle-aged mother and wife is relatable and anchors the audience to the action of the piece. The conversations between the two are plausible and rooted in reality, but each time Lola returns to visit is another exercise in futility. It feels like an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” where a conflict of cosmic importance is played out in the most ordinary of circumstances.
The play explores questions of chronic illness and late-life care, but also looks at broader themes of life and mortality. The title alludes to the central metaphor of a tree falling with no one to see it. Is life what happens, or what is remembered? Is the immediate moment as valuable as our past, or our potential? These themes are demonstrated with even more urgency, and even absurdity, through the lens of Lola and Lenny’s relationship.
“A Tree, Falling” delivers engaging performances supported by a brilliant production, and one of the best things a play can offer: something to chew on after.
Upstream Theater presents “A Tree, Falling” April 13 – 29: Friday and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with Sundays at 7 p.m., except April 29, which is at 2 p.m., at the Kranzberg Arts Center, 501 N. Grand in Grand Center. For more information, www.upstreamtheater.org
Photo by ProPhotoSTL