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Deena Aziz and Rachelle Casseus, photo by Andrew Alexander.

Theatre review: The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble exerts a powerful force

By Jennifer Cavanagh on September 24, 2016

What draws one to a play about Alzheimer’s with a massively long title? Well it’s topical, relevant to the daily lives of many, and offers precisely what theatre does best: challenging subject matter served up with a healthy dose of entertainment.

Manon St-Jules, Adrien Pyke, Deena Aziz and Rachelle Casseus, photo by Andrew Alexander.

Manon St-Jules, Adrien Pyke, Deena Aziz and Rachelle Casseus, photo by Andrew Alexander.

Kudos to playwright Beth Graham for tackling a daunting subject and moreover creating a highly-personal drama about family dynamics and what draws us closer or tears us apart. The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble, on now at the GCTC, is wonderfully scripted a thoughtful look at an upsetting topic interlaced with wry humour and peopled with imperfect relatable characters.

Bernice Trimble (Deena Aziz) is the 50-something widowed matriarch: active, chic, and staring down a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer’s. Having seen her own mother stripped of both memory and dignity, Bernice’s terror, though masked in stoic bravado, is palpable. The play revolves around Bernice revealing the diagnosis to her adult children, the weight of what she chooses to disclose, and the aftershocks that reverberate through familial relationships.

Despite Bernice figuring largely in the title, the first-person perspective is that of her daughter Iris (Rachelle Casseus), our narrator, and at times the family “judge” who struggles with the news of mother’s diagnosis and her coping strategies. As the story unfolds, the differences between mother and daughter are slowly overshadowed by the parallels and are overtaken by unexpected similarities. Casseus is remarkable, delivering a marathon performance, tied to center stage throughout.

Manon St-Jules, Deena Aziz, Adrien Pyke, and Rachelle Casseus, photo by Andrew Alexander.

Manon St-Jules, Deena Aziz, Adrien Pyke, and Rachelle Casseus, photo by Andrew Alexander.

The fitting set design by John Doucet works beautifully, featuring mostly vacant window frames suspended in a circle over a kitchen largely cobbled together from the same material. The missing panes subtly echo loss and emptiness, while the circular design overhead mimics the stirring forces of attraction at play below.

Completing the cast in this four-hander is the frantically childlike sister Sarah (Manon St-Jules) engrossed in her own life and petrified of what this diagnosis hails for her future while the monosyllabic statistician brother Peter (Adrien Pyke) attempts a retreat from the pain and chaos of the situation.

Despite Casseus’ powerhouse performance, it is Deena Aziz, who discreetly steals the show, with her elegant and achingly painful portrayal of Bernice. We clearly see her recognizing and heading toward a “path that gets darker and darker” from which there is no return. She is the quiet embodiment of the invisible force of the title and her children must realign their trajectory thrown of their orbit by the nova this illness ignited.

This is a play about illness, about Alzheimer’s, so it fitting closes with an unclear prognosis for the future. It is a play about families that delivers an unflinching examination into the attractions and forces that bind our relationships and lives.

The Gravitational Pull of Bernice Trimble runs until October 9th, 2016 at the Great Canadian Theatre Company.  It plays Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays 4:00pm and 8:30pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm. The runtime is 90 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are available online through the GCTC website.