Review: Carolyn Cook brilliantly brings to life Steve Yockey’s new play “Blackberry Winter”

Carolyn Cook has created a dazzling character in Blackberry Winter. (Photos by Christopher Bartelski)
Carolyn Cook has created a dazzling character in Blackberry Winter. (Photos by Christopher Bartelski)
Carolyn Cook has created a dazzling character in Blackberry Winter. (Photos by Christopher Bartelski)
Carolyn Cook has created a dazzling character in Blackberry Winter. (Photos by Christopher Bartelski)

Steve Yockey’s Blackberry Winter is a fine play, and the Atlanta production is knocked out of the park by the extraordinary, brilliant performance of Carolyn Cook in the lead role. Everyone should go see this show, though not everyone will be able to.

It runs at the relatively small Actor’s Express theater through November 22. The performance I saw was sold out, and I imagine many of the remaining shows will be full as well. If you’re lucky, you already have tickets. If you’re smart, you’ll get them soon.

I’m tempted to end there because when I see something I admire, I often feel “go see it” is all that really needs to be said in a review. But allow me to elaborate.

Blackberry Winter is (more or less) a one-woman show in which Cook plays Vivienne, a woman dealing with the onset of her mother’s Alzheimer’s disease. It sounds depressing as hell, but Vivienne is honest, funny, sensitive, forthright, mature and insightful, all qualities that Cook effortlessly brings to the role as she speaks directly to the audience. 

The character and her world pop vividly and beautifully into three dimensions right from the opening moments. During the course of the play, Vivienne, who in addition to having a host of admirable qualities also has a strong streak of avoidant behavior, shares with the audience a comforting, personal fable that she tells herself at difficult times. Her little story about animals in the woods is brought to life by two supporting actors (Maia Knispel and Joe Sykes), who perform as the mole and the egret in her tale.

Cook portrays a woman whose mother is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer's disease.
Cook portrays a woman whose mother is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s disease.

It all works well, and I feel my duty here is to highly recommend the show. That done, I can go on to say that there’s no such thing as a perfect play, so I can pick out a few points of criticism. 

The projected animations by Marisa Ginger Tontaveetong are pleasantly drawn, but their inclusion in the production is a mistake. Even on its own, the whole Aesopian fable skirts dangerously close to the kingdom of reductive, wee children’s-theater-for-adults (trust me, it’s a thing), and the animation ends up sending it right into the heart of that capital. 

Any strength of the fable comes from its mixture of strangeness, threat and sweetness, but the delicate balance tips towards the saccharine with the addition of animation. I have mixed feelings about projections integrated into live performance in general (don’t we spend enough time looking at screens?), and their regrettable presence here proves my suspicions correct. And with too much quasi-poetic repetition, the three parts of the simple tale take too long to tell, which is another problem.

I also felt that one of the play’s central discoveries rings false. Late in the play, we learn that Vivienne is tortured by her buried feelings that her gradually worsening mother might be better off dead. Vivienne’s imagination also occasionally flashes onto the possibility of euthanizing her mother as a boldly charitable act. 

Such musings would be devastatingly troubling for anyone, of course, but the character seems tough and sophisticated enough to recognize that even the mind of a reasonably good person will sometimes wander into disturbing territory. The danger is in being the sort of person who acts on it prematurely or out of selfishness, and she obviously isn’t there.

In other words, it’s a disappointing turn to find out that this otherwise mature character is so stuck on maintaining the perception of her own purity, goodness and innocence. It’s not adult-like or modern, characteristics which Cook’s Vivienne otherwise seems to possess in profoundly admirable abundance. 

I felt for her awful situation, of course, but the emotional, tear-filled plea about wanting to be a good person ultimately didn’t win my sympathy because it didn’t seem true to the character.

The play is part of a “rolling world premiere,” a silly new term for multiple productions of a play that run concurrently or close on each other’s heels at different theaters across the country. It’s awesome that this excellent new play is being so widely produced, but I’m old-school in that I believe a play only has one world premiere, which is the evening of its first public presentation. 

Subsequent productions are subsequent productions. For mediocre plays, this new form of PR babble-speak hardly matters, but for good ones, it does creatives a disservice. One actor performs a role in a play’s world premiere, and there’s likewise one set designer, one director and so on. It’s a significant distinction in the theater, it always has been, and there’s something not quite right about spreading an honor around so a bunch of people share it.

Well, whatever. I may be the only one who cares, which is fine. The important thing here is to go see the show here in Atlanta with Carolyn Cook before it rolls away.

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