What’s more painful than watching a loved one die? Perhaps it’s watching that person lose all sense of memory, history and identity as part of the process. That’s the difficult subject matter of “Unraveled,” which is currently receiving its world premiere at Theatre Unbound, a group that’s never shied away from exploring the tough stuff.

Jennifer Blackmer’s play revolves around the relationship between Joy, a gifted philosophy professor, and her aging mother George. Not only is George dying from lung cancer, she’s also suffering from chemo therapy-induced dementia. As her mother has only a few months to live, Joy enlists the assistance of a hospice nurse to help her cope with the demands of George’s care.

The action of the play alternates between past and present as Joy recalls her upbringing as the only child of a single mother and the deep bond forged between the two of them. Carin Leonard-Gorrill portrays Young George as engaging, wise and nurturing, a mother determined to ensure her daughter has the opportunities she herself missed. Kristen C. Mathisen is equally effective as Old George, unflinchingly capturing her character’s growing anxiety and paranoia as she loses her grasp on reality. Her distress is palpable and gripping as she strikes out in rage at the daughter who has become a stranger to her.

The painful contrast between past and present that these two outstanding performances embody between them is one of the most effective elements of “Unraveled.” Jamila Anderson as the steely, focused hospice nurse, and Eli Coats as Joy’s long-suffering love interest both offer solid performances as well.

Rebecca Myers Yoho has a more thankless task in the role of Joy, a woman who, despite her academic honors and achievements, seems unable to advance beyond the narcissistic outlook of a young child. Racked with insecurities, unwilling to acknowledge her own adulthood and resentful of the fact that her mother is now the one who needs to be cared for, she seems an unlikely product of the maternal care that’s been lavished on her. Ironically, it’s the fact that playwright Blackmer has created such a paragon of a mother in George that makes Joy’s role so unsympathetic, lending a problematic sense of unbalance to “Unraveled”.

Mary L. Cutler’s direction is well-paced and economical, counteracting “Unraveled’s” tendency to linger over-long on philosophical musings about entropy, the nature of time and quantum entanglement theory. While Blackmer’s play offers some stumbling blocks, Theatre Unbound’s production makes the most out of this examination of transformation, the nature of love and the difficulty of saying goodbye.


Lisa Brock writes about theater.