Kate Griswald is a writer -- a television writer. She lives on her cell phone, bombarding the audience with blocked communication metaphors -- the foundation for a story that uses Alzheimer's disease as a red herring to focus on a mother-daughter relationship.
Playwright Trish Vradenburg keeps Surviving Selma from taking the easy path to an after-school special by focusing more on the relationship than on the disease. As a successful writer on a hit television show, Kate has gotten where she is partly because of her mother's overbearing encouragement. Her biggest challenge is to patiently accept her mother's need to remain a vital force in her life. But when Dr. Garannet reminds Kate that patience is a virtue, Kate retorts: "I'm an immediate gratification person. To me, success is a virtue." The mother and daughter have a lot of unfinished business to tend to, and Selma's Alzheimer's is the obstacle that simultaneously forces them to directly confront each other and impedes the communication they each want so desperately to enable.
Michael Stansbery's unencumbered set design of hanging windows in front of sky-blue draped fabric and beautiful wood floors is fleshed out by Nancy Hankin's subtle lighting. Together the two designers create an ethereal environment for the play's action, tenuous and formless, an oxymoron of physical representation capturing the transitory nature of Selma's changing perspectives and the evolving relationship between the two.
The supporting players are given the kind of material that makes it easy to shine. Rick Zahradnik gives the play ballast as Sam Garannet, Selma's doctor and Kate's suitor, an almost Freudian relationship that sets up this zinger of a line from Kate: "There's nothing that turns on a woman more than talking about her mother." Christopher Lowell makes a smooth transition from a loyal sidekick of a husband to a buffoonish escapist when he finds a new companion in Lorna. She is described as "Doris Day without the virginity," and is played by Ashley Crockett with charisma and a gaudy sparkle that offsets the subdued tones of hospitals and nursing homes. And Greg Lanning plays a handful of roles with chameleon-like flexibility, linking the nuisance-inclined characters that orbit Selma's world.
Robin Howard and Katie Damp are effective as Selma and Kate, despite a little line stumbling suggesting that opening weekend may have come too soon. One of the play's challenges is to establish Selma as a powerful, active woman before the disease sets in and then show the subsequent withering away to a ghostly shell of herself. Director Rob Barron doesn't effectively confront his audience with the startling transition that we need to see in Selma. The pace lags at times, with arguments often protracted out beyond their usefulness and a certain amount of running in circles that could be trimmed out of the two-and-a-half-hour production.
Ultimately, this is Kate's story, and Selma's Alzheimer's is the catalyst for change in Kate, who starts the play with a world of issues. Selma's attitude that "only a mother loves you enough to hurt you" is softened by her vulnerable disclosure: "I had to get Alzheimer's just to get your attention." After nearly two full acts of suffocating emotional sumo wrestling, Kate and Selma arrive at an intense climax, and Damp finally reveals a small breakthrough in Kate's ability to deal with her own conflict. The mother-daughter issues are as resolved as we could hope for, but Kate's character is left on the tantalizing verge of awakening.