'Assisted Living': Play offers insight and a humorous lift for caregivers

Published on
May 9, 2013

The scene is vaguely familiar. As a former caregiver, I’ve been here before. For 12 years, my late wife, Linda, lived in a similar adult residential facility in Seattle’s northend with five other residents suffering from dementia, Parkinson's, or just old age. Linda, died two years ago at age 63 of young-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

As with the tale of the four aging boomer denizens in Katie Forgette’s dark comedy, “Assisted Living,” which made its debut in Seattle’s ACT Theater, Linda’s adult home also had its moments of gallows humor.  As I learned in my 12-year journey as an Alzheimer’s caregiver, death, diminishment and decline, both psycho-spiritual and physical, were ever-present guests at her residence.

In Forgette’s brilliantly imagined and unforgettable rendering, the four residents of “Assisted Living” inhabit a Catch-22 world, eerily reminiscent of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” Forgette’s fictitious protagonists are people we recognize all too readily. Wally Carmichael, Joe Taylor, Beatrice “Judy” Hart and Mitzi Kramer, in fact, are our neighbors, friends and colleagues.  

They are us, or what we will become in a few short years. As playwright Forgette describes her characters, Wally is a 65-ish “cranky mush-pot.  Well-hidden, but present” with a “regard for human frailty.”  Judy (65-plus) is “ill, but not so that [one] would necessarily notice.” Claudia, also another 65-ish boomer, is a former nurse, in “declining health but not kindness.” She is a “tough love practitioner, [but] not sadistic.”

Adding to the zany cast is Kevin (Tim Gouran), the jukebox dancing caregiver/orderly whose “aspirations exceed opportunities and perhaps intellect," in Forgette’s words. In the memorable opening scene, Kevin, wearing earbuds and singing “Viva Las Vegas,” enters, wheeling an occupied, draped gurney. He lifts a hidden hatch from the floor marked “Night Deposit” and yells down the chute: “Stan! Incoming!”

 Photo: Alan Alabastro/ACT  Laura Kenny plays Mitzi and Tim Gouran is Kevin in "Assisted Living."

Photo: Alan Alabastro/ACT Laura Kenny plays Mitzi and Tim Gouran is Kevin in "Assisted Living."

Moments later, in an Orwellian aside or perhaps a scene from the Sixties classic “Soylent Green," Stan yells, “I got her!” As Kevin adjusts the gurney, an arm drops down from under the sheet — a large charm bracelet on the wrist. Kevin grabs it, holds it up, and — just as from the hallway the audience hears “Meep! Meep! Time for your pills!” — Kevin pockets the bracelet.

Welcome to Nursing Home #273! At the nurse’s station, under two looming archways, a giant wall clock, and “Today’s Date is…”, hangs an American flag and a portrait of President Dick Cheney.

Wally (Jeff Steitzer) trundles over to Nurse Claudia (Julie Briskman) with his protruding belly, a full catheter bag flopping at his ankle, and rips into her: “The bill for my insulin ..."  Claudia cuts him off and declaims: “We’ve had this conversation, Mr. Carmichael. That bill is your responsibility,sounding like a SNL send up of Mitch McConnell or Paul Ryan.

“There is no Medicare anymore,” she continues. “It’s gone. Your doctor told you to lose weight or risk developing diabetes. You gained weight. You developed diabetes. Therefore, under SPA, the Senior Provision Act, your insulin is not covered and your baseball card collection will be sold at auction.”

Several scenes later, the elevator bong sounds, and a voice says: “Your new home, buddy.” Joe Taylor (Kurt Beattie) in his wheelchair, suitcase on his lap, comes rolling on with great speed from off-stage, while Wally nods off. More gallows humor, as Forgette’s tale unfolds.

As might a new inductee in an Orwellian "Brave New World," Taylor bravely intones: “I’m checking in.”

Claudia begins her interrogation of the newest inmate:  “Taylor, Taylor, Taylor… Emphysema… Are you now or have you ever been a smoker?’  “I was,” replies Joe.

“You’ll purchase your own oxygen. Prostate cancer. Are you incontinent?”

Joe demurs and begins to squirm: “Could you maybe keep your voice down? Sort of private information, you know?”

Claudia:  “No, I don’t know. If you are referring to privacy laws contained in what was once known as HIPAA, then perhaps you are unaware that HIPPA no longer exists.” The nurse barks, “If the taypayer pays for your room and board, sir, then the taxpayer has every right to know what he’s paying for.”

As Forgette’s hilarious comedy proceeds to its memorable denouement, we soon know the foibles, hopes and dashed dreams of Joe’s new friends, Judy (Marianne Owen), Mitzi (Laura Kenny) and Wally.  As Wally memorably utters towards the final act, “We are all living on borrowed time here!”

Laced with jabs at everything from America’s broken healthcare system to the Catholic Church along with theological rants about the Virgin Birth, “Assisted Living” is an endearing mix of “Monty Ponthon,” “MASH” and “Catch 22.”  Yet, cleverly embedded in this modern theater of the absurd are memorable and profound meditations about mortality.

In a Crosscut interview, author Forgette told me how she was inspired to write “Assisted Living.”  

Q. Was it personal or family circumstances, or a mid-life crisis, or epiphany?

A.  I work with senior citizens [in nursing homes, where they have theater groups]  who are in their 80s and 90s, most of whom have taken remarkable care of themselves, both physically and financially. This got me thinking about the current state of our country’s health — the epidemics of dementia and diabetes, for instance — and what’s going to happen when the bulk of the baby boomers, a huge statistic, hits retirement.

Q:  Are there any larger truths, or questions, that you’d like your audience to take away or ponder after seeing “Assisted Living”?  I think it is such a timely play following as it does on the heels of our fractured national discourse on the Affordable Care Act.

A:  First and foremost, I want the audience to feel drawn into the story and to care for the characters. Beyond that, my hope would be that the play might start some conversations about lifestyle choices and the power of incremental change. Most of us are dealing with some bad habits or inertia regarding the development of good habits.

I, for instance, have an unusually close relationship with sugar — if my husband and a pint of Ben and Jerry’s Chubby Hubby were both in danger of drowning, well, I’m pretty sure I’d rescue Bob. Refined sugar is a wicked inflammatory — I know this — and yet I’m constantly doing battle with the inner 5-year-old. I think the more we can be honest with ourselves, face our weaknesses and at least imagine a solution, the better. There are no guarantees, and God knows genetics plays a huge role in each person’s health, but there are things you can do to at least lower the chances of a slow, painful, expensive demise.

“Assisted Living” is a timely journey into the present, not the future, and is full of arresting dialogue as Claudia and Wally, Judy, Joe and Mitzi grapple with the challenges of life in the world of America’s broken health care system. 

In “Assisted Living,” Forgette tackles that and many other issues of life and mortality with humor, grace, verve and boundless compassion. It is a production not to be missed.

A longer version of this review originally ran on Crosscut.com on May 7, 2013.