Nancy Robinette has to remember to forget as the kidnapped amnesiac heroine of "Fuddy Meers." Woolly Mammoth's raucous production of David Lindsay-Abaire's subliminally serious farce continues at the Kennedy Center's AFI Theater through July 14.
"Playing a character [Claire] with amnesia was so interesting, because as an actor, you're supposed to fill in those blanks . . . but I kept getting ahead of myself," explained Robinette recently. "I would keep forgetting [in rehearsals] that she didn't have a piece of information. . . . She didn't have enough information to know that she's not in good hands."
Claire wakes up each morning knowing nothing about herself. "I think the play's about a woman who stands up to abuse," Robinette said. "She has to figure out who she is, which is such a huge dramatic metaphor anyway. . . . Part of the way of knowing who you are is by knowing what your boundaries are."
Early in the play, she's spirited away to her mother's house by a masked man who says he's her brother. Claire's memory lapse combines with mom Gertie's stroke-impaired speech.
Rosemary Knower navigates the scrambled syllables Lindsay-Abaire concocted for Gertie. "I worked backwards. I worked from the music of regular speech, so that what Gertie is saying would have normal inflections," she said.
Both actresses have great affection for their characters. Of Gertie, Knower observed, "When you first see her, she's baking bread . . . but when she's pushed to passion in the defense of her daughter, she becomes the rip-snorting potential murderer. . . . That is glorious. I love that."
Robinette, who's celebrated in Washington theatrical circles for off-the-wall comic characterizations, likes the personality Claire reveals as her fog lifts.
"She's ultimately, in her true self, the most balanced character in the play. So that was a stretch for me," she said, laughing. "I like her because she's safe and trustworthy. . . . She wants to show up and make an adventure of life and finally figures out a way to take control and do that."
'Surviving Grace' Anyone who sees "Surviving Grace," a new play running tomorrow through July 15 at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater, may be surprised at the laughs conjured by author Trish Vradenburg even when the subject is Alzheimer's disease.
Vradenburg once scripted such crackerjack television sitcoms as "Designing Women," "Family Ties" and "Kate and Allie," so one-liners come naturally, even in a play this close to her heart. "I have written a ton of schlock in my life," she said last week, "but with this . . . it's the only thing I've ever written that really matters. It really is a funny show as well, because that's how I know how to write . . . a quick joke."
In the play, daughter Kate is a Type A sitcom writer who faces down her fear over mother Grace's worsening condition with humor. "Her defense is a one-liner -- like you have a bulletproof vest against emotion," Vradenburg said.
"I love humor, particularly in a play that has a serious [subject]," said veteran director Jack Hofsiss, who's guiding this production. "A sense of humor in the theater as well as in life is very important."
A Georgetown University grad who worked in Washington theater in the early 1970s before heading to New York and making his name with "The Elephant Man," Hofsiss said last week that he finds the play's themes of profound loss and a sudden comeback resonant. "As you may know, I had a diving accident in 1985 and I've been in a wheelchair since then, so therefore, I know a thing or two about having your life altered dramatically. . . . One year to the day [from the accident], I went into rehearsal for a play." It was, he said, "the best thing I could have done."
"Grace" is based on Vradenburg and her own mother, Bea Lerner, a proud veteran of President Nixon's enemies list who had Alzheimer's and died in 1991. In the second act, Grace takes a drug that restores her, at least for a time. It's a wishful act for Vradenburg.
"I felt totally guilty that I was working and wasn't paying the attention I should. . . . My mother disappeared into the chasm of Alzheimer's so remarkably quickly. . . . This second act, this is a chance for me to reconnect and have it out with her," said the writer. "It's not really about Alzheimer's as much as it is about a mother and daughter reconnecting and understanding and letting go."
She's also making the disease a crusade. "I am going to make a stand for something," Vradenburg said. "I am so determined to raise awareness of Alzheimer's."
* Olney Theatre Center will present "Much Ado About Nothing" on its lawn July 5-8, featuring actors from the theater's touring troupe, the National Players, as part of the Summer Shakespeare Festival. It's free, though reservations are recommended. The production will also visit venues in Howard and Prince George's counties and Rehoboth, Del. Call 301-924-3400.
* "Holy Ghosts: Stories From Meridian Hill," an original play by grade school students from the Columbia Heights/Adams Morgan area, will be performed by professional actors July 4 at 8 p.m. at Meridian Hill/Malcolm X Park. The play was created by kids in a Young Playwrights' Theater program at the Josephine Butler Parks Center. Call 202-387-9173.
* Sidney, the sweet Australian shepherd who played Crab, the comically impassive pooch in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona" at the Shakespeare Theatre this spring, died last week of a tumor. The 13-year-old veteran of TV commercials and obedience trials was at home with trainer Miriam Fields-Babineau in Stafford, Va.