Anyone who has ever been forced to care for a declining parent or grandparent will recognize the truths revealed in Michael Aman’s brilliant new play, “Feeding the Bear.” The comedy received its world premiere this weekend at Island City Stage in Wilton Manors.
Dementia and Alzheimer’s are particularly cruel diseases, robbing their victims of cherished memories and unleashing spastic emotional swings. The afflictions can be just as traumatic for family members and caregivers as they are forced to watch loved ones slowly drift away.
Aman’s play centers around a family coping with their father (Kevin Reilley), nicknamed “Bear” as a child, who is still in the early stages. Joey (Andy Rogow) is a middle-aged gay school teacher plagued by body dysmorphia disorder, an imagined obsession with his appearance. Chrissy (Niki Fridh) chain smokes marijuana and has failed at two marriages.
Portrayed brilliantly by veteran character actor Reilley, Bear is cantankerous and moody, sometimes confusing the children for his father, wife or housekeeper. Occasionally, he acts out against his son’s homosexuality and weight, or his daughter’s drug use, reopening old wounds and fostering new neuroses.
Rounding out the cast is Martini (Johnnie Bowls), a drag queen who stars in a campy cooking show on public access cable. Joey and Chrissy are both regular viewers, but it is Martini who eventually concocts a recipe for healing between father and children.
Aman’s play reveals the challenges he has faced with his own father, who has early Alzheimer’s, and the situations and dialogue are clearly informed by his experiences.
Roles are reversed as the siblings must care for the parent, feeding, bathing and clothing him, just as he did for them as infants. Unconditional love transcends frustration and resentments, some petty, others not so much.
The weight of responsibility felt by Joey and Chrissy is also not lost on director Michael Leeds, who has been in the role of caregiver to aging parents himself. Leeds successfully counters the heaviest moments with perfectly delivered comedic respites, many offered by Martini.
It’s also Martini who delivers profound insights during his encounter with Bear, following a soured hookup with Joey at the family’s rural farmhouse. As Bowls becomes more comfortable with Martini’s authentic persona, Martin, those moments will figure even more prominently in the performance.
The production is accentuated by a multiple-level set by the always creative Michael McClain that serves as the farmhouse, barn, Chrissy’s apartment, a gay bar and Martini’s TV cooking kitchen.
Aman’s last play at Island City Stage, “Poz,” earned him a Carbonell Award nomination for best new work and “Feeding the Bear” may be the play that finally lands him the coveted trophy. Also, Reilley’s moving, nuanced performance as Bear deserves a nod, if not the award, for best actor.
Island City Stage presents Michael Aman’s “Feeding the Bear” through July 3 at the Abyss Theatre, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy. in Wilton Manors. Tickets are $35 at IslandCityStage.org.