- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 30, 2001

Anyone who has encountered Alzheimer's disease in a friend or relative knows the seriousness and sadness of the condition. "Surviving Grace," playing at the Kennedy Center, leavens the severity with wit.
Trish Vradenburg, who has written for such TV shows as "Designing Women" and "Family Ties" and whose mother died of Alzheimer's disease in 1991, has expertly crafted a script full of sitcomlike punch lines that entertain and push the plot forward.
Director Jack Hofsiss couples Mrs. Vradenburg's story with a strong cast and good timing to create a production that's much like a two-hour-plus "Seinfeld" episode, in which serious matters are part of the recipe but never boil over.
Grace (Doris Belack), an older woman with an impeccable fashion sense, humor and a strong will, is married to Jack (Jerry Grayson) and has two daughters, Kate (Ilana Levine) and Gwen, who is mentioned often but never appears onstage.
One day, Grace's mind slips, and she can't remember her husband's name. A few months later, Alzheimer's has robbed her memory.
Meanwhile, Kate is working long hours as a TV sitcom writer, dealing with sometimes slumping ratings; always difficult divas, such as Madge (Barbara Tirrell); and prissy assistants (James Hindman). Grace's husband, Jack, who files for divorce, is off to Miami to find a new, younger love namely, 48-year-old Lorna (Denise Lute).
When everyone thinks Grace is doomed to rot away in a nursing home, however, her departed mind and spirit come back with full force. Her feisty attitude and naggy comments of old return with the help of new drugs prescribed by Dr. Sam (Dominic Fumasa).
Miss Belack is exceptional as Grace. She goes gracefully from the vibrant and complaining to the distant and dreamy. Miss Levine, too, delivers the neurotic, overachieving and beautiful Kate on a silver platter. She dives into work, where she succeeds, because she's afraid of relationships, at which she might fail.
With a new lease on life, Grace wants to see the world — and have a few words with Jack, who takes pina-colada showers with his new love and wears a black wig. Dr. Sam, who wants Grace to remain at the nursing home to monitor her progress, tries to persuade Kate to make her mother stay. He says research is important for everyone, including Kate, because half the children of parents with Alzheimer's disease are genetically prone to get it.
Kate's return volley is illustrative of the dialogue throughout. "Well, I feel really bad for Gwen," she says.
The set, by Anna Louizos, is stylish, with blond wood furniture and velvety chairs, used for scenes ranging from sitcom tapings to family talks. The backdrop is crowded with symbolism, showing a couple of collages of old clocks, handbags, paintings, shoes and sculptures, as fragmented as Grace's mind.
Costume designer Thom Heyer has the right touch in dressing Lorna in low-cut shirts and dresses, youth-chaser Jack in loud Hawaiian shirts and white pants and shoes, and slim Kate in stylish but comfortable brown pantsuits.
After two hours of excellent entertainment, the play's ending disappoints. Humor exits, and schmaltz enters. The mother's mind (and with it, the show) declines again shortly after an emotionally charged mother-daughter duel in which Grace says she had to get Alzheimer's to get Kate's attention and Kate quips that Grace is an emotional sumo wrestler.
Back at the nursing home, as mother and daughter hold each other, Kate says between sniffles that she is planning to have Grace's grandchild with none other than Mr. Perfect, aka Dr. Sam. Grace musters, "I love you." They, and the audience, cry, and the show's over.

3 and 1/2 stars
WHAT: "Surviving Grace"
WHERE: Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, through July 15
PHONE: 202/467-4600

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