From the schoolyard to a dementia day care center- The Necessary Stage has definitely been busy! In addition to their recent production of the classic Those Who Can’t, Teach, TNS continues its 30th anniversary celebrations during that very same weekend with Family Secrets, a Theatre For Seniors double-bill centered around the elderly and their families.
In this restaging, Cultural Medallion winner and playwright Haresh Sharma teams up with director Peter Sau to carry on the company’s tradition of tackling important social issues through theatre with two short, emotional pieces. They first address terminal illness in Don’t Know, Don’t Care, following a family learning to cope after its eldest member. Grandfather (Michael Ng) develops a tumor and moves in with Mother (Judy Ngo) and Son (Mattias Tay) so they can better care for him. The second piece, Don’t Forget to Remember Me tracks the decline of Madam Wong (Catherine Sng) after developing dementia and the impact of this on her daughter Janice (Doreen Ang).
Originally commissioned by HCA a Hospice Care and the Alzheimer’s Disease Association, both pieces do a brilliant job in helping the audience understand and sympathize with those afflicted by terminal illness and dementia respectively. The MVP of the night is no doubt Catherine Sng, giving a stunning performance as Madam Wong, realistically charting her transformation from a sharp, energetic ex-teacher to a dementia patient afflicted by erratic behaviors and mood swings. A flashback sequence which shows Madam Wong playing host to her students for a celebratory post-exams dinner is particularly heartbreaking when juxtaposed against current-day scenes of Madam Wong’s mental regression and erratic mood swings, as Sng effortlessly oscillates between docile and childlike, to petulant and angry.
Special mention goes out to TNS’ Theatre for Seniors program alumni Michael Tan and Padma Sagaram, both who give great performances as Grandfather in Don’t Know Don’t Care and dementia patient Madam Yogeswari in Don’t Forget to Remember Me respectively. Michael Tan in particular gives an emotional performance as Grandfather, alternating between hilarious and heartbreaking, and serves as a reminder not to forget the elderly’s emotional needs in the process of caring for their physical bodies.
Unfortunately, there were some instances where the educational aspect of both pieces felt heavy-handed and lecturey. Son’s breaking of the 4th wall to address the audience on the importance of remembering the elderly’s humanity while dealing with their illness seemed well-intentioned but overly maudlin. Similarly, Dementia Center Manager Johan’s (Al-Matin Yatim) speech to Janice explaining a dementia patient’s condition was informative but felt abrupt and inorganic. This was a pity given how much more effectively and seamlessly the educational elements were incorporated into the rest of the piece.
Sharma is a masterful scriptwriter and presents an unflinchingly honest portrayal on two families watching the slow decline of their loved ones and coming to terms with their imminent death. In Don’t Know, Don’t Care, Mother goes through the motions of a dutiful daughter, feeding Grandfather medication and making him breakfast, but is visibly uncomfortable discussing illness and death. Like many Singaporeans, she copes with his impending passing by shutting down emotionally and taking comfort in the pragmatic, putting his welfare at the hands of an unseen nurse. Meanwhile in Don’t Forget to Remember Me, Janice struggles to reconcile her personal desires for freedom and independence with her responsibilities as primary caretaker and daughter, ultimately physically lashing out at her mother in her frustration. Despite occasional lapses into melodrama, Sharma’s treatment of these characters are nuanced and realistically show the stress that these caretakers are under, ultimately depicting these women as flawed but sympathetic.
A special shoutout as well to the production team, particularly for the set and sound design. Vincent Lim’s set is a restrained yet dynamic collection of simple wooden frames that alternately peel open or fold up into a 3 room flat, a dementia care center and even an abstract coffin, complete with hanging hooks for the various character’s costumes. Meanwhile, Bani Haykal does interesting work with the sound design, utilizing his experience blending music and spoken word to create gorgeous soundscapes that combine recordings from the characters, ambient noises and music.
Ultimately, Family Secrets is a sentimental look at the importance of family and works most effectively when eschewing the dramatics for quiet tender moments that focus on the underlying affection and love these family members have for each other. If TNS intended for the play to touch hearts and inspire reflection, judging by the lack of dry eyes in the room at curtain call, it is safe to say that TNS achieved their purpose indeed.
By Sim Xinyi for Bakchormeeboy