What happens when a person bids farewell to her mind, and her loved ones take leave of her as they’ve known her? In prizewinning U.K. playwright Barney Norris’s “Visitors,” now playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, we’re introduced to these circumstances. We watch a couple in either advanced middle age or young elderliness, in their cozy farmhouse in Wiltshire, England, as wife Edie, played with charm by Charlotte Booker, begins the long slope — or will it be a steep drop-off? — into dementia while her husband, Arthur, played gamely by David Bennett Stephens, watches — how else? — helplessly.
Into the mix comes Kate, played with flair and utter believability by Ella Dershowitz, who arrives on the scene with long legs and blue hair, for free boarding in return for whatever help she can give, even as she herself grapples with the slings and arrows of how to shape her young life. And then there’s son Stephen (Ryan Winkles), insurance executive, husband of 20 years, with two teen daughters, saddled with parents who mustered more love for each other than they could possibly generate for him. In Mr. Norris’s skillful hands, no one character is any more flummoxed or adrift or fraught or mad than any other: Life is so challenging and confusing and yet whooshes by so fast, there’s nothing to do between the groans and the sobs but to laugh and to love.
In some ways, Edie and Arthur have never truly appreciated the profundity of their love until now, as they stand on the verge of Edie’s disappearance. We open on Edie in her favorite chair reminiscing about some random seaside wedding glimpsed long ago. She natters on in a meaningless muddle that Arthur, white knuckles clenched on the arms of his own chair, has clearly heard some thousand too many times. It was bold of the playwright to open with this vague monologue, so acutely boring and annoying, yet it sets the tone, and a moment later Arthur waxes nostalgic about their own wedding, which clearly Edie has erased from her stuttering mental album, and immediately we’re mesmerized. We don’t stop being mesmerized until the final lights-out.
Amazingly — and one has to wonder if this is true of all people tumbling into Alzheimer’s — Edie is hilarious as she utters without guile whatever comes to mind. When Arthur tells Kate they’ll ask when they need help with anything, such as supporting Edie upstairs to her bedroom, Edie assures their new young aide, “We don’t need help in the bathroom.” When they inquire of the blue-haired, law-educated young woman why she’d want to shut herself away on a beyond-the-back-of-beyond farm, Edie asks, “You’re not on the run, are you?”
The family dysfunction is absolutely classic. Psychologists say the number three is difficult in any situation. When a married couple happens to be agreeably fond of each other, as are Arthur and Edie, who knew each other from the ages of 13 and 11, their only child would react by feeling left out, especially for this rustic pair who seemingly never read the books about healthful parenting, not even their own English pediatrician Penelope Leach’s fine primers.
Steven and Arthur are particularly wary of one another, never at ease, never loving. It’s impossible to imagine them even watching a sports event together, and in any event, the farmhouse seems to be missing a telly. And Edie clearly lacks the proper amount of maternal hormones: She thinks nothing of regaling Kate — in front of Steven — with tales of his schoolday geeky personality. She’s virtually amused that he had no friends, no one to invite over: no visitors, in other words.
And then they face the business complications of elder illness: Do they sell the farm? Will their life insurance kick in with early payouts for a policyholder who’s lost her mind but not her body? The body itself becomes something one rebels against, and Edie manages to ask in any number of her ingenious ways what, if anything, it’s been good for.
MJ Bruder Munafo directs with her usual aplomb and attention to polished pacing. The farmhouse living room set, conceived by scenic designer Lisa Pegnato and built by master carpenter Paul Munafo, with backup from technical director Boaz Kirschenbaum, is nothing like the Cold Comfort Farm we might have expected, but more in keeping with a contemporary house on a working plot of land that one might find even here on the Island. The hearth gives us realistic flames, green wood doors complement gold walls, and a conventional but nonetheless pretty floral still life hangs above the chairs.
Adding their expertise to this fine production — the last of a season of five summer plays — are stage manager Christine Lomaka, lighting designer Jeffrey E. Salzberg, master electrician Carl Gosselin, light board operator Brendan Rome, box office manager Geneva Corwin, and illustrious casting director Michele Ortlip.
Special kudos go to costume designer Cynthia Bermudes for sheathing each of the four characters in his or her own personal style, especially blue-haired Kate with her urban boots, leggings, and random jewelry. Petra Lent McCarron, as sound and projection designer, bathes the last moments on stage and characters in an array of light and images that cast the impression of our passing lives wisping away and yet blending with the glow and pungency of all the dreamtimes behind us and perhaps yet to come.
“Visitors,” now playing at the Martha’s Vineyard Playhouse, Tuesdays through Saturdays, through Oct. 10. Advance ticket prices start at $30 for most performances. After 6 pm, unsold seats at every performance are only $25 cash at the door. For more information, visit mvplayhouse.org.