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Andy Bragen revisits the last years of his mother's life in Notes on My Mother's Decline
On some nights, Notes on My Mother's Decline feels as much like a memorial service as a show. Although the two characters in Andy Bragen's play are not named, the writer makes it clear that they are based on himself and his late mother, Eugenia M. Bragen. For more than half a century, Tracy Bragen, as everyone called her, lived just down the block from the Fourth Street Theatre, where Notes on My Mother's Decline is currently running. At the performance I attended, two colleagues of hers from Baruch College, where she taught English for some 40 years, were in the audience. "The real Tracy was a real Southern belle, with a heavy Southern drawl," one of them told me.
Also there that evening was a longtime friend who organized group trips with her to Turkey and Egypt. He's called "Bob" in the play, and we hear the Mother arguing with him about Neil LaBute and David Hare and other playwrights. Tracy Bragen was a fanatical theatregoer, and she often brought her son along. "Clearly seeing all those shows made an impression since I grew up to be a playwright," her son recalled in an essay he wrote for TDF Stages earlier this year.
"I found it was emotional for me in ways I did not expect to watch the play with people my mother knew," says Andy Bragen, who lives across the street from the apartment where he grew up -- the one his mother occupied until her death in 2017 at the age of 81.
Bragen began writing Notes on My Mother's Decline -- which is having its world premiere in a co-production by PlayCo and his namesake company -- back in 2013. He had just finished mounting his immersive play This Is My Office, which had been sparked by the death of his father in 2007. "That experience was very intimate and local, and I really enjoyed it," he recalls. So he turned to thoughts of his mother, who was already starting to fade. He says his desire to write about her deterioration "was driven by frustration and anger and a sense of grief that I did not quite understand. It was an intense piece to write." But he struggled to get it right. "I think there were some emotional limitations that I hit within myself," he admits. Over the years he kept returning to the script, but it wasn't until he revisited it several months after her death that he felt he could finally move forward with a production.
In the play, which is directed by Knud Adams, the Mother (portrayed by Caroline Lagerfelt) spends almost all her time lying in her bed in a room that is otherwise empty and painted completely white. She speaks in a one-sided dialogue -- we hear her talking to friends, family, home health aides and her son, but we can only imagine their responses.
Meanwhile, the Son (Ari Fliakos) narrates in a kind of poetic shorthand:
A visitor (me).
She is startled."
Although some might see the nonrealistic set and the nonintersecting dialogue as creating a distancing effect, Bragen says there are several reasons why he avoided a literal staging. It's easy for the audience to fill in the other sides of the Mother's conversations, so they're not needed. But more importantly, Notes on My Mother's Decline is a memory play, where "truth and memory shift and are fluid."
"I think it captures something in the way that they don't quite talk to each other," Bragen says. "The son is talking to the audience, but they are not who he needs to be talking to." Only near the end of the 75-minute play does an actual dialogue between the characters take place -- one Bragen says he wishes he'd had with his mother before she died.
"I never told my mother about this play; it did not seem appropriate," he says. "But I think if I'd finished it while she was alive, I would've loved for her to have seen it."
Top image: Caroline Lagerfelt and Ari Fliakos in Notes on My Mother's Decline. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.