At the Arts Club Revue Stage until March 23
Posted on March 7, 2013
How Has My Love Affected You? might give your tear ducts a major workout. My guest, a cool but sensitive guy, sobbed openly for the last ten minutes. I didn’t know that his mother’s dementia had progressed so far that he can’t bear to visit her in the care facility where she now lingers. Playwright/performer Marcus Youssef, on the other hand, visits his Alzheimer’s-suffering mother Roleene all the time. And it’s killing him.
While dementia and Alzheimer’s are increasingly common, Youssef’s case is unusual and unusually painful. When Roleene Youssef left the family first to go live in a motel, then to settle in California and eventually to go into care, she left behind boxes and boxes of journals, letters, post-it notes and photographs that documented and revealed all her most intimate thoughts including details of all the lovers she’d had – including three to eight week stands with men she found on the internet. She also demanded that Marcus Youssef, her son, be completely written out of her will. And she wrote that she wished she could “erase Marcus” – even his name. That last bit choked me up.
A hardened soul would have burned the lot. That’s not Youssef. In an interview, he says with regard to her writings, “I have to set an alarm when I read them, for an hour or maybe two. And when it goes off, I have to stop reading them. That’s the deal.”
So why would he put himself through this excruciating process? Firstly, he knows the experience of watching our parents’ decline is universal and that talking about it makes us feel less alone. A conversational collage in the lobby after the show went like this: “When my mother …”, “My father in those final years …”, “She didn’t even remember who I was …”, “I didn’t even recognize him . . . ”
And secondly, Youssef is awed by how little we know of the inner, hidden lives of others. His mother’s obsessive documenting of her life is rare evidence of how much more is going on than we can possibly imagine.
How Has My Love Affected You? is also Youssef’s potent reminder of how important it is to tell those you love that you do. Time is running out.
Directed by Rachel Ditor for the Arts Club and Neworld Theatre, Youssef is primarily a storyteller and How Has My Love Affected You? is an intimate conversation between him and the audience. There’s potency in its raw, unpolished approach and tremendous lift from having his young musician/songwriter son Zak at the keyboard on stage with him. They share some sweet and funny in-family banter: Marcus points out he has little hair and a so-called Roman nose while Zak has a gorgeous head of thick curly hair and a regular nose. Zak perks up when Marcus promises him “only sixteen more performances” then shrugs and grins when his dad teasingly adds, “Unless we tour.”
Zak sings songs by Veda Hille that she wrote using scraps of Roleene’s writing while the song that brings the non-existent curtain down is “The Storyteller”, written and performed by Zak, whose youthful presence is a gift.
But it’s the sheer warmth with which Marcus, shirt untucked, sleeves rolled up, embraces the audience that keeps How Has My Love Affected You? from becoming unbearably sad. His rueful self-effacement, unqualified honesty, quirky sense of humour and his courage in facing head-on this difficult life passage is, ironically, life affirming.
As for my guest, maybe those unchecked tears will provide the necessary catharsis to get him to visit his own mother while there’s still time. Experience tells me that the pain of visiting is nothing compared to a lifetime of regret if you don’t.