Christine Mary Dunford
14 April 2023
In 2007, Lisa Genova (born in 1971), an American neuroscientist published a novel in which she described how the early onset of Alzheimer’s disease changed the life of the linguist Alice Howland, a distinguished university professor in the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience. Alice was at the height of her scientific career, in her early fifties, with grown-up children and a successful husband, also a scientist. As she began to forget words and started getting lost in her everyday ways, her long journey into the unknown began.
Lisa Genova, who had never written a book before, chose a form of a novel to describe the illness, not wanting to describe the symptoms and signs from the outside, but to get closer to what was happening inside the protagonist and her interaction with others. The disease also has an inescapable impact on those around her, especially on those closest to her. The result was a gripping insight into the hardships and fears of a personality that is changing inexorably.
In 2013, the director and actress Christine Mary Dunford adapted the novel for the stage. She explored the interface between the nature of illness and theatrical performance. Patients suffering from Alzheimer’s disease forget their past and lose the ability to imagine the future, they are left with an isolated and therefore all the more intense experience of the present moment. This bears resemblance to what we do when we watch a theatre performance. By introducing a character who embodies Alice’s interior nature, she has added a new, often even humorous perspective to the intense and poignant story, and above all, she has opened up the inner landscape of the play’s protagonist. The script follows the worsening of the illness and, alongside the difficult trials of Alice and those closest to her, but it also addresses the fact that life goes on and that nothing can be taken for granted. In the face of the unknown, we are all fragile and vulnerable, but at the same time more receptive to new and sometimes surprising insights.
Lisa Genova’s novel was made into a successful film in 2014, with the actress Julianne Moore winning numerous awards, including the Academy Award for her performance as Alice.
Race for Memory
Death is not necessarily the worst possible news. There are worse ones. What happens to someone who realises in full consciousness that their brain has suddenly, unexpectedly, begun to disintegrate in the midst of a dynamic and active life? Slowly, but irreversibly. Progressively. Due to the atrophy of the brain’s grooves. Due to senile plaques. Due to a neurodegenerative disease that kills memory. Slowly eroding it. A disease that disorientates you in time and space. Which makes your ability to judge dissolve and your consciousness collapse. And that is not all. The world around you is also collapsing. It is crumbling for those closest to you.
The play Still Alice has a hard core. Naturally, there is a story around that core. There are family relationships, there are social statuses and there are different relationships. Because novels, films, theatre art – they all need stories. Because in the landscapes of art, it is hard to find a shortcut to the truth. But the nucleus of this story remains relentless. Raw. Cruel. Because it’s not all about the journey of no return. It’s mostly about the realisation that there will inevitably be moments along the way when you will cling to the last shred of humanity to the very end of your power, before you finally sink and disappear into the quicksand of oblivion.
But fortunately, that is not all there is to it. There is also good news. There are reasons to engage in playing and acting. In doing theatre.