Last Words

Reviews, Stage

Last Words review (Kadimah Jewish Cultural Centre)

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Written and performed by Joseph Sherman, Last Words is part reminiscence, part exploration, part homage and celebration and part reliving of Sherman’s father Mischa’s life. It’s at times funny, melancholy and ultimately desperately sad, as he demonstrates the bleak reality of the scourge that is Alzheimer’s disease. Overall it’s an extended elegy for a father (and to a lesser extent mother) he is still working to understand.

Having significant family exposure to dementia, I have felt similar drives to
Sherman; the urge to know and understand more about my family and from where I came, especially so I could pass those stories on. This is how family myths get built, how the great stories of one’s family accrete over time via the wandering paths we all walk. For me in particular these stories struck close – my father too was wayward and complicated, and is suffering now. It’s a reminder that human stories have many parallels, no matter from whence we come.

It’s a reminder that human stories have many parallels, no matter from whence we come.

Sherman’s family are particularly mythic. The first half or more of the play is taken up with stories from Odessa, of his maternal grandmother, his entrepreneurial father; post war, mostly post Stalin USSR, always coloured by the particularly disturbing Jewish experience of those times. It’s harrowing in between and around the lighter moments, ending in their move to Australia via Italy in the 1970’s, arriving to the delights of Nunawading.

All through Sherman hops nimbly between Russian, Yiddish and a deeply Australian accented English. He spends time on Russian poet /Stalinist victim Osip (Joseph) Mandelstam’s story and Mandelstam’s elegant poetry is peppered through the show from this point.

Through most of the show Sherman is himself, talking of his family and their stories with love. At the time the story moves into his parents’ later life he pivots briefly into the doctor that he is in the outside world to tell us more about Alzheimers from an objective view. This leaves us with the thought of the night – “never order Uber Eats!” – if you want to do your best to avoid Alzheimers.

From then on he becomes his father as a dementia patient, accompanied by
haunting and sympathetic piano from Chris Bolton, who doubles as carer for the haunted, erratic Misha/Joseph.

Kadimah is a small space, and Sherman uses it all effectively … the one man show feels complete.

One of the almost incidental lessons portrayed with great empathy is a reminder of the unthanked work that carers in dementia wards do daily. They are the unsung heroes of this tale.

Kadimah is a small space, and Sherman uses it all effectively, darting around to bring us pictures and memories of the past, then dancing across the floor in a reverie or standing in a corner, distracted and confused. It works well physically to fill the space and the one man show feels complete.

Structurally there are a couple of flat spots – the pivot section is a bit too
explanatory (although there is a lovely comparison between Mischa and Joseph – but that too is a touch laboured). While I understand Sherman’s desire to lay it all out for us, it would have been more effective to let us do more of the thinking. He could at times have left just a little more space to let us feel the end of the point he has just made, then move into the next section – that could be just second night settling in. Similarly Chris Bolton’s spoken sections jar (as opposed to his plaintive singing which sits comfortably in the space). They’re a tear in the fabric of the world Sherman has created. That may be just the delivery on this night.

Quibbles aside, Last Words is a deeply felt and beautifully portrayed piece of familial exposition. Sherman doesn’t shy away from his parents foibles, nor try to sanctify them. Instead he deals in memory and love, while their memories evaporate.

Last Words is on at Kadimah Jewish Cultural Centre until March 8.

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