What sets Blue Squirrel Productions' The Woman in the Mirror apart from most is that from the get-go, the audience knows what to expect. There aren't any unexpected twists and turns or a grand, climactic peak that leaves us gobsmacked. The premise is clear.
Based on Dayna Steele's 2016 book Surviving Alzheimer's With Friends, Facebook and a Really Big Glass of Wine and now on stage at the MATCH, The Woman in the Mirror chronicles Steele's journey as the caregiver to her mother, Fran Nicholson, who passed away from Alzheimer's in 2015.
Written and directed by Marley Singletary, The Woman in the Mirror is simple in its approach; it doesn't need to do much to engage with the audience. Ryan McGettigan's set design is minimal, transporting us to what initially feels like an ordinary living room.
However, every item on stage is tacked with a sticky note name tag, a reminder of the steady cognitive decline that people struggling with Alzheimer's face. In the back of the stage is a projection that reveals the Facebook statuses Steele posted through-out caring for her mother to cope with the experience — statuses that are often laced with witty, dark humor.
With Singletary's scaled back direction, Steele drives the production with a conversational and inviting energy that puts the audience at ease. Right from the beginning, we're given permission to laugh with her as she reminisces on the lighthearted and the soul-crushing. Steele is not an actor, but she doesn't need to be; the story told is of her own experiences, and her background as a rock radio DJ, podcaster, and keynote motivational speaker leaves her more than equipped to keep the audience with her for the show's 75-minute runtime.
It's a testament to Steele's skills as an orator that we feel like we know Fran. Through her humorous recounting of Fran's life and the images of the mother and daughter together that are projected through-out the production, it's difficult to not find her familiar. Steele is aided on stage by Chris King, who plays a character titled as "Stage Manager." The touch of dialogue and physical comedy between the two add a welcomed layer to the production, with the two alternating roles between Dayna and Fran and often replicating real conversations between the daughter and mother.
The true power of The Woman in the Mirror is its macro commentary on the ways that we process grief, along with the sheer informative nature of the production. While Steele chronicling her mother's struggles with Alzheimer's on social media with a dark, biting wit may come across as crass and oversharing to some, it shows that there's zero shame in finding healthy coping mechanisms that work best for the individual. Even if that means finding the humor in a tragic situation (and with a glass of wine perpetually in hand). What you can't find the words to say in person may be best funneled through a social media platform to friends and strangers, and, well, that's just fine.
Steele seeks to break the ice on conversations between families that she stresses are a must, yet are conversations that we are often too uncomfortable to have: on health matters, finances, and end-of-life issues. Steele advocates that having your ducks lined up and having these often uncomfortable conversations with loved ones will ultimately spare grief, stress, and guilt. Truthfully, you should keep the Playbill for this production and never lose it. Steele devotes two pages to a list of questions families can ask loved ones concerning their needs and wishes, as well as the seven stages of Alzheimer's — shedding light on a devastating disease that is simultaneously enigmatic yet is something millions are experiencing in some capacity.
The Woman in the Mirror is not without its flaws — there were moments where conversations between Dayna and Fran were projected onto the screen that did not match what was actually being said by Steele and King — and projections were at times delayed. Sound cues interrupted Steele at various points, making the opening night feel like a dress rehearsal that was still getting the kinks worked out.
However, these were largely technical issues that didn't take away from Steele's remarkable ability to let the audience into her world and feel invested in a story whose foregone conclusion we already know. It's charming, oddly inviting, and a love letter to an often unsung group of people: caregivers.
Oh, and you just may walk away with a couple of bags of peanut M&Ms.
The Woman in the Mirror continues through November 14 at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at the MATCH, 3400 Main. Masks are required of all guests while inside the theater. For more information, call 713-521-5433 or visit matchouston.org. $35-50.