★★★★☆ (Performance attended 7/2/20)
Tackling dementia with both humour and heart.
One of the most terrifying things about dementia itself, besides its effects, is the sheer length of time it can possibly affect a person for, eating away at their mind for years till the day they die, left an empty husk of their former selves. The burden then falls onto a patient’s carer as they watch their ward forget them as each day goes by, until the day they finally die.
With their production The Long Goodbye, Story Works and Dreamland come together to tackle the lengthy process of dealing with dementia head on. Inspired by bestselling memoir My Little Boys (小儿子), The Long Goodbye follows Luo Yi Jun (Lee Tien Chu), an ageing author with the symptoms of early onset dementia. His estranged son Zhong Ning (Wu Ting Chien) moves home to take care of him, and over the course of the play, the two must mend their difficult relationship while Luo’s ever-worsening condition threatens to completely ruin their lives.
Written and directed by Story Works artistic director Huang Chih Kai, The Long Goodbye’s most important aspect is the father-son relationship at the heart of the production. From the beginning of the play, it is clearly established how close the two used to be, with a young Zhong Ning (played by Chen Hsuan Chia) playing with Luo in a playground. Luo writes the preface to his novel, expressing his love for his son as Zhong Ning doodles on the slide behind him, and we think back to our own childhood days where our parents brought us to the playground, watching over us and spending time together. Throughout the rest of the play, as Luo’s condition deteriorates, he flashes back more and more to moments he and Zhong Ning spend together in the past, and we are constantly reminded how much happier the two used to be compared to the present, making us desperately want them to find that closeness with each other once again.
Their estrangement however, is not without reason. In his performance, Wu Ting Chien manages to evoke sympathy for Zhong Ning, allowing us to understand Zhong Ning’s resentment for his father and his frustration with the increasing difficulty in taking care of him. As the son of a famous author, Zhong Ning’s success is constantly overshadowed by his father’s, and it’s no wonder he gives up his artist dreams to pursue a completely unrelated career. With his unresolved feelings left to fester, the gulf between them is understandably deepened over the years, made only worse with the difficulty of caring for his father. Watching his own father lose his sense of reality is an incredibly painful process, and there is simultaneously a sense of pain, disappointment and disillusionment in Zhong Ning’s face when Luo no longer even recognises him as his own son. This emotional distance is perfectly encapsulated when they sit on a bench in the park they frequented in Zhong Ning’s childhood, staring at each other in silence as the bench separates itself, moving to either end of the stage and leaving an immeasurable gap between them.
As for Luo, Lee Tien Chu’s performance paints the image of a father who has wanted nothing but the best for his son, endearing us to him throughout and feeling for his plight as he sinks further into his dementia. Always, it is clear that Luo has never stopped loving Zhong Ning, firmly believing in his talent and regretting that he never made the most of it, silently encouraging him throughout his childhood and supporting his decisions in adulthood. We find our heart breaking several times as Luo’s condition worsens; when he finally realises how much of a burden he’s becoming on his son’s life, his face falls, utterly broken inside as his spirit is crushed by a conversation he overhears.
The mood and atmosphere across the play is further enhanced by the creative team’s effective use of projections and set design. Colourful, child-like illustrations are used to depict backdrops from cityscapes to parks, constantly reminding us of both father and son’s desire to return to the simpler days of before, when things were a little happier. Each time Luo’s dementia worsens, these illustrations fade to black and white and jumble, reflecting his confused state of mind. When Luo goes missing, Zhong Ning runs across the stage looking for him, as the giant wooden boards making up the set (designed by Tseng Su Ming) slide across the stage while shadows dance across them, as if Zhong Ning is lost in a murky, unknown world.
While not the main focus of the play, one of the strongest performances from this production in fact, comes from Tsai Hsuan Yen, as Zhong Ning’s ever loyal girlfriend and colleague Zhang Cai Rou. Armed with her own problems, Cai Rou still remains devoted to her boyfriend as she comes help him take care of his father, from housework to being mistaken for his own daughter. Tsai’s performance is representative of an independent woman putting on a strong front, yet evidently approaching breaking point from all the pressure put on her. One of the most emotional moments in the entire play comes when she finally makes a decision to leave at the play’s climax, and for all her troubles, manages to get unexpected emotional closure from Luo as he unwittingly gives her a solution to her problems. As the two embrace, there is an immense sense of catharsis as she finally is paid her due for all her suffering, in this bittersweet arc to her story.
Other standout performances include Kuo Yao Jen and Lin Tung Hsu, as Zhong Ning’s dense brother-in-law and a bumbling policeman respectively, offers moments of levity to lift the mood, while Liu Shan Shan steals the scene each time she plays Luo’s doctor. There is an effective balance between moments of dramatic tension and genuinely comedic scenes to lighten the mood, allowing The Long Goodbye to never feel too heavy throughout its two and a half hour duration, reflecting how life itself comprises a series of events both dark and absurd.
For the most part, The Long Goodbye takes its time establishing characters and relationships, fleshing out each one’s backstory properly and giving us ample time to understand and feel for each one. With such a strong set-up in place, towards its end, The Long Goodbye then picks up its pace and delivers a high tension climax. At this point, Luo’s dementia has peaked and in a lucid moment, considers suicide as a viable option, leading to several attempts to kill himself. On the other hand, Zhong Ning finally reads his father’s novel for the first time, and at last realises how his father’s love for him has never wavered since the day he was born (illustrated by a poignant flashback to Zhong Ning’s first month, as Luo looks on with pride and joy). In attempting to make things right before it’s too late, the two end up in their favourite park, as they look at each other, finally understanding how the other feels. The Long Goodbye then results in a deeply satisfying conclusion as they lock themselves in a tight embrace, letting go of any misgivings in the past and working towards a better future together.
Dementia is clearly shown to be a struggle, its difficulties laid bare for all to see, and the very real threat of tearing everything apart the moment it rears its ugly head into our lives. But as The Long Goodbye shows, what matters most for those going through the struggle is the importance of family. With a little love and perseverance, one can see hope at the end of a long dark tunnel, and the journey together becomes a little easier to bear, one day at a time.
The Long Goodbye played from 7th to 9th February 2020 at the Esplanade Theatre as part of Huayi Festival 2020.
The 2020 Huayi – Chinese Festival of the Arts ran from 31st January to 9th February 2020. For the full list of programmes and tickets, visit the Esplanade website here