During a recent performance of You Will Remember Me by François Archambault at Tarragon Theatre in Toronto, I realized that I’d make a terrible theatre critic.
The production is solid and I have few disagreements with this review from Glenn Sumi, my colleague at NOW Magazine, and yet I couldn’t help thinking about how the play could have been better, despite all its praiseworthy aspects. I was rewriting it in my head throughout the performance, selfishly thinking of the missing scenes or the characters that should be cut.
That’s not to say I didn’t like the show—just that my mind was engaged with the many places I wished the story had gone but didn’t. (This is how a theatre critic would shoot him/herself in the foot.)
Mostly, I was distracted by the reductive portrayal of dementia as just memory loss. It’s far more humiliating, tragic and darkly comedic than simply forgetting names and facts. While I don’t think Archambault intends to represent dementia in a strictly realistic way—he instead focuses on creating a thematic connection with Quebec’s political scene—in narrowing this complicated disorder to a one-note character tic, You Will Remember Me misses a chance at something more powerful.
Too much time is spent setting up the captivating central relationship between the main character, Eduoard, and a young woman, Berenice. I’ll be vague here on purpose to avoid spoilers. It’s this connection that allows the play to escape its repetitive reminders of Eduoard’s faulty memory and situational confusion. Berenice gives us access to him in a deeper way because she’s the one character who doesn’t try to correct his constant misremembering—she indulges in it, though for reasons that aren’t entirely clear.
Because Eduoard’s dementia has no rough edges, the stakes overall feel artificially imposed, particularly with regard to his failing marriage. His wife is supposed to be at her wit’s end, but we’ve only seen her husband as a charming inconvenience. At worst, Eduoard is an inoffensive reminder of the inevitability of aging and, ultimately, of death. There is no rearing head of cognitive decline or meaningful demonstrations of how this can wear on family members who feel compelled to help but unable to make a difference.
You Will Remember Me proves that stories about dementia don’t need to be total downers, but I’m not convinced that the complicated ugliness of a mental disorder needs to be streamlined in order to tell a satisfying story. My hunch is that there’s more satisfaction to be found in confronting it with a holistic approach.