Norman & Beatrice: A Marriage in Two Acts makes an extraordinary demand on its two actors: they play an elderly man with dementia and his loving wife in 2001 and return after the intermission to play the same characters as newlyweds in 1947. Directed by David Travis, this traditional new play by Barbara Hammond, featuring veteran actors Graeme Malcolm and Jane Nichols, soars in the first act but stumbles badly when it leaps back in time in Act II. The opening act captures the texture and rhythm of lived experience shaped into a satisfying dramatic arc. According to the program notes, Hammond wrote it after a visit to her parents' home in the months before her father died. Set in the kitchen of the couple's modest, small-town Wisconsin home (the splendid set design is by Luke Hegel-Cantarella), the 40-minute act is a closely observed, poignant rendition of the havoc that Alzheimer's disease inflicts on the victim's sense of self and history, and the vigilance and patience required of the caregiver.
Norman, the former mayor of his small town, inhabits a confused, anxious mental state in which fantasy and reality blur, the familiar often turns strange and disconcerting, and the past devours the present. Malcolm astutely conveys Norman's fractured reality while never losing touch with the old man's humanity. Beatrice, meanwhile, spryly maintains the thread of a "normal" conversation, patiently filling in the pieces of himself that Norman has forgotten. Nichols's matter-of-fact Beatrice takes her new circumstances in stride without self-pity.
The scene is not maudlin or depressing. The enduring bond between Norman and Beatrice leavens the sadness of this final chapter. "We should get married," remarks Norman at one point. "We are married," Beatrice reminds him. "We are?” replies Norman. "Holy Toledo! I'm a lucky guy."
This first act stood alone as a one-act play for five years, until, Hammond says in the program notes, she was inspired to write a prelude after she unearthed a short film of her parents' wedding. Set in the same kitchen, stripped of the accretions of a half-century of living, this second act finds Beatrice pregnant with her first child and Norman setting out on his political career.
The second act, a pale derivative of the first, has the feel of a writing exercise. In it, Hammond shoehorns in one snippet of dialogue after another that we heard previously in the first act, but the echoes rarely achieve resonance. Instead, we discover that the non sequiturs that Norman utters in the throes of dementia are the remnants of surprisingly banal conversation.
Perhaps trying not to present too idyllic a view of the young couple, Hammond veers too far in the opposite direction. The misunderstandings and personality differences that come to light make it hard to believe that this man and woman got married in the first place, let alone stayed together for more than 50 years. It doesn't help matters that Malcolm and Nichols are mature actors. Nichols has the toughest time. In a drama that strives for realism, it seems unfair to ask an actress probably closing in on age 60 to play a 21-year-old woman.
Ultimately, it's a shame that the intricate story of a marriage that we glimpse in the first act must remain buried there.