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Award-winning play 'Absence' delves into dementia

| Friday, April 21, 2017, 8:57 p.m.
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The cast of 'Absence,' Peter Floyd’s award-winning play about dementia, rehearses in preparation for a performance at The Palace Theatre.

Alzheimer's disease or dementia affects a patient's loved ones and makes it harder to assess what's going on inside the patient.

Newhaven Court at Lindwood in Hempfield will explore that heartbreaking issue by presenting the play “Absence” on April 26 at Greensburg's Palace Theatre.

Playwright Peter M. Floyd of Boston was inspired to write the play in response to his mother's experience.

“My mother had dementia for quite a number of years,” he says. “The initial spark was to write about what the world looked like from her perspective as best I could, though, of course, it's subjective.”

“Floyd's script gives the audience a direct link into the world of Helen Bastion, a 74-year-old woman, as she struggles through the many stages of dementia,” says Michael Anton Monsour, director of sales and marketing at Newhaven Court, who directs using the name Michael Anton.

“The effects the disease has on her family, as well as herself, are portrayed in such a humanistic way that, although the story is a wild roller coaster of time jumps, plot twists and infused dramatic irony, you feel that you are right there with Helen every step of the way,” Anton says.

Floyd says that the main character, though inspired by his mother, is not based on her.

“Helen is a controlling person, which my mother was not,” Floyd says. “She's definitely not warm and fuzzy. I wanted to explore what happens when someone like that starts losing control, when even her own mind won't obey her commands.”

His mother's experience differed from Helen's in another profound way, Floyd adds.

“It was hard watching my mother go through dementia, but I'd never seen her happier,” he says. “She had anxiety and probably some depression, so in an odd, horrible, but somehow beautiful way, she had a more carefree life in those last years.”

Playing the part of Helen will be Linda Stayer, who has acted on various Westmoreland County stages for the past 30 years.

Filling out the cast are William White as Helen's husband, Terri Bowser as her daughter, Jordan Alexandra Streussnig as her granddaughter, Rob Jessup as her doctor and Joseph Milliren as Dr. Bright, revealed in the course of the play as a figment of Helen's imagination.

Bowser brings two levels of experience to her part. The Avonmore resident works as a nurse in the Westmoreland Hospital surgical recovery room and is a veteran of local theater and commercial work.

“I've worked in long-term care and seen the struggle families go through,” she says. “The play is a reflection of the disease. It's not a happy play, but dementia is not a happy disease. The ending is sad, but there's also a moment of connection (between Helen and Barb).”

Floyd wrote “Absence” as part of his masters of fine arts playwrighting program at Boston University, where it was first performed in the program's Boston Playwrights' Theatre. It has since been staged in theaters around the country and recently in Italy and Sweden, which Floyd says is “very exciting, since this is a universal, international problem.”

The play was a 2012 co-recipient of the Jean Kennedy Smith Playwriting Award. The award, named after the former ambassador to Ireland and sister of the late President John F. Kennedy, honors outstanding student-written scripts that explore the experience of living with disability.

The play's performance in Greensburg is co-sponsored by Excela Health Home Care and Hospice. Proceeds will benefit the Alzheimer's Association.

In addition to the play presentation, the evening will include after-parties hosted by both Newhaven Court and Excela.

Excela will offer appetizers and cookies, a photo booth and a general health information table. An art therapist also will be available to talk with guests. Newhaven Court will host a meet-and-greet with the cast, live music and 50/50 raffle.

“It was an easy decision to work with Newhaven,” says hospice executive director Erica Shaffer. “Our direct care team sees families struggle when a member is absent in a way, when they used to be there. Caregivers can feel guilty when they're having a rough time, so the message here is, ‘You're not alone in this.' ”

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750 or smcmarlin@tribweb.com.

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