Review by Greta Doell
A layered story about intergenerational trauma and identity, BETTY at Theatreworks was stirring and powerful. The play followed Lucy, a mother and advocate of adoption reform, and her elderly mother Rose, who suffers from severe dementia. Both women are burdened from childhood trauma that has made their relationship fraught but despite this, Lucy desperately tries to care for her mother as her health declines.
Although creative license has been taken, the play draws from Jules Allen’s lived experiences, who is both playwright and the actress portraying Lucy. Allen’s script does a fantastic job of truthfully depicting the reality of dementia. Lucy’s mother, played by Sally Mckenzie, fluctuates from clinging to past stories of comfort to vicious paranoia, bitterness, and helplessness as she loses her grip on reality.
Even in her more controlled moments where she is more calmly grounded in her conversations with Lucy, Rose is difficult to connect to. Her outdated and at times, problematic, sense of humour hardly make her lovable. She wears her heart on her sleeve when it comes to what she really thinks of Lucy, and her own lifelong battle for survival makes her quick to insult and deny Lucy’s truth if it does not line up with her own.
With the show’s minimal set design, Danni A Esposito’s sound design adds subtle sprinklings of meaning to Rose’s character. The occasional jingling of a small bell in the distance, and other times the gentle droll of a Tibetan bell, are worked into the piece when Rose’s confusion settles in, as if only heard by her. They indicate a nagging call to a sad past that Rose cannot escape. It’s a devastating depiction of the worst kind of dementia, with Lucy having to watch someone who has already suffered in life, stuck in a loop of distress. However, Mckenzie’s performance of small moments of nostalgia and humour add balance and lead audiences to hold on to hope for Rose, just as Lucy must.
It’s a testament to Mckenzie’s agility as an actress as she jumps from outpourings of grief to warmer moments on a dime. She takes on the huge role with grace and stamina. Rose’s obsession with Magnum ice creams and attempts to get her hands on any are amusing, but her sudden attacks of grief and flashbacks of trauma are heartbreaking.
Allen is also a talented performer. It would be easy to accidentally slip into melodrama given the intensity of the material, but she is measured and engrossing. The actresses work together well, thanks to Iain Sinclair’s direction. Rose and Lucy are on two completely different pages, desperately trying many means to get one to understand the other, and Sinclair unites these actresses to navigate the eps and flows of this mother-daughter relationship effectively.
Whilst the realities Rose and Lucy dig up are devastating, BETTY is a play about love and compassion even in the hardest of circumstances. There is empowerment in the understanding and voices these characters find through their searching.