Review: ‘Blackberry Winter’ resonates at Actor’s Express

The first of two new one-acts performing in repertory at Actor’s Express, Steve Yockey’s “The Thrush and the Woodpecker” (closing Nov. 15) may give most people in the audience just what they’ve come to expect from the imaginative writer of such earlier Express shows as the psychological/supernatural thrillers “Octopus” (2008), “Wolves” (2012) and “Pluto” (2013).

For some others, however, the second of them, Yockey’s domestic drama “Blackberry Winter” (continuing through Nov. 22), might offer just what they’ve been waiting for. It’s a sure sign that there’s more to his talent than dark and fantastical allegories alone, that the Atlanta native (now based in Los Angeles) can craft a deep slice of real life with equal flair and conviction.

A co-production between the Express and Out of Hand Theater, smoothly directed by the latter’s Ariel Fristoe, “Blackberry Winter” casts the consummate Carolyn Cook as Vivienne Avery, a sensible suburban wife and mother — and daughter.

In a series of lengthy monologues during the 80-minute play, Vivienne dutifully confronts the challenges of her aging mother’s “inexorable” Alzheimer’s disease, not only in terms of honoring the woman with the dignity she deserves, but also pondering the inescapable repercussions on Vivienne’s own life.

No matter how many times she assures herself “It’s not about me,” or how genuinely she believes it, “Blackberry Winter” is about Vivienne. Cook grabs our attention and rarely loses her grip. In her masterful hands, even protracted sidebars about baking a coconut cake and shopping for scarves, or a running gag about a “swear jar,” become the stuff of great acting.

A drawback: While the character easily qualifies as one of Yockey’s most endearing and identifiable, by her own admission, Vivienne is “impeccably mannered,” too. Consequently, there’s a highly theatrical affectation to Cook’s performance (replete with an exaggerated Southern drawl) that initially makes it harder and takes longer to eventually warm up to.

We never meet the members of her family, but “Blackberry Winter” isn’t exactly a one-woman show. As you could probably gather from their titles, metaphorical animals are a recurring theme and figure prominently in many of Yockey’s plays (even “Pluto” was named after a philosophizing dog).

Here, it manifests in the fanciful form of a few projected animated sequences about forest creatures and their memories, an “anthropomorphic fable” Vivienne’s writing as therapy to find a purpose in all the mess, nicely narrated on stage by Maia Knispel (as a well-meaning white egret) and Joe Sykes (as a self-serving gray mole).

Technical kudos for these interludes go to animation designer Marisa Ginger Tontaveetong, character designers Ashley Love and Ai Zhang, and background designer Shir Wen Sun. The sweet incidental music is by Haddon Kime.

But the pure, heartfelt emotion guiding the play ultimately comes from Yockey. As Vivienne would agree, such wonders in life never cease and what’s most important is appreciating the possibilities.

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