BY SANDY STAGGS
Hazel Louise Corts was not a famous person.
But she was a champion to Dr. Deborah McEniry and her family. So much that McEniry and her cousin Dr. Alicia Corts wrote a play in her honor.
A child of the Great Depression “Hazel Louise” was an adventure seeker. She won tuition to a business college as the fastest typist in all of Illinois. The wife of a pastor, she worked as a secretary and raised seven children. And she was an incredible grandmother.
McEniry, chair of the South Carolina School of the Arts at Anderson University’s Theatre Department, embodies her “Gramz” in this solo show that reconstructs both magical and painful episodes as Hazel Louise, 86-years-young and stricken with Alzheimer’s , looks through a Bell Jar of sorts, a scrapbook of pictures, that triggers a stream of consciousness tsunami of memories.
Memories lost. Memories reconstructed by McEniry in 18 roles that explore the life of Hazel Louise at 18 different ages.
“I become her,” McEniry told Carolina Curtain Call just days before she debuts “Hazel Louise” before the world on Thursday, October 4 at 7 p.n. in a free performance at the Rainey Fine Arts Center.
Then McEniry is off to New York City (with her design team Technical Director & Lighting Designer Cara Wood and Costume & Hair Designer Jessica Snyder) where they will present “Hazel Louise” at the United Solo Theatre Festival at the acclaimed Theatre Row. The largest festival of its kind in the world, performers from six continents participate in this esteemed event.
The memories bounce about randomly, in no particular order, she said, mimicking the non-linear thought-process a person with Alzheimer’s experiences.
She plays a rambunctious 12-year-old who likes to jump off the roof of their house.
She plays a 19-year-old smitten with McEniry’s future grandfather, who cared for his wife up until his death. Hazel Louise died just 12 days later in a nursing facility in West Palm Beach, Florida where McEniry lived 20 years ago.
In the “Coffee” monologue, she is Hazel Louise at 39, pregnant for the seventh time with a sudden repulsion to the taste of java.
However, like life itself, not all memories are as light-hearted and McEniry doesn’t shy from those in this intimate portrait including the death of Hazel Louise’s twin sister to diphtheria.
“I play a 9-year old who is losing her sister,” she said. “And her mother would not let her go to the funeral, because she was so sick herself (of diphtheria).”
“Just to get in the mind of your g
For research, the playwrights interviewed uncles, aunts, and other cousins. And they drew from stories that had been passed down generations.
This is the second play and Solo Festival appearance that she and Dr. Corts (co-writer and director, and theatre professor at St. Leo University) have collaborated on. In 2015 she performed “YESNOMAYBE (The Doppelganger and the Professor),” which Corts also directed, about the Big Apple’s transformation since her days as a working actress there.
randmother, and what Gramz must have felt like,” McEniry said, with a melancholy inflection in her voice, upon reflecting on these true life moments that are all based on fact and lightly theatricalized in this new work.
“We wanted to do another project together,” McEniry said. Eventually, they “just started thinking about Gramz. We both held her in such high regard.”
McEniry said she cherishes her many years with Gramz, who didn’t develop the disease until her final two to three years.
“We had her a long time,” she added. “She was only 46 when I was born.”
“And Gramz took me on my first roller coaster ride when I was six and she was 52.”
And she remembers the comforting scent of peppermint chewing gum emitting from Gramz’s pocketbook, a device McEniry uses to establish time periods in the play. And one of the 14 purses in the show that is one that Gramz knitted for her.
“Gramz was kind to the very end,” McEniry said. And she never got that combative spirit that can be common with Alzheimer’s, the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States, and the only one for which there is no cure or effective treatment. More than five million people suffer from this disease.
“She didn’t know my name at the end, but she knew that I was someone she loved.”
After the Solo Festival, McEniry hopes to perform “Hazel Louise” at St. Leo University in Florida.
“Hazel Louise” will be performed on Thursday, October 4 at 7:30pm in Daniel Recital Hall in the Rainey Fine Arts Center. There is also a talkback on Alzheimer’s after the performance. This is a FREE event but you must reserve a ticket at https://www.andersonuniversity.edu/school-of-the-arts/theatre/events.
Meanwhile, McEniry is also in the throes of rehearsals for “Sister Act: The Musical” the fall show at the South Carolina School of the Arts.
“Sister Act: The Musical” runs Oct. 25-27 at 7 p.m. with an additional 1 p.m. matinee on Saturday, Oct. 27. Tickets are available at https://www.andersonuniversity.edu/school-of-the-arts/theatre/events
For more information about Alzheimer’s visit the Alzheimer’s Association of South Carolina at Alz.org/SC or call (864) 224-3045.