At age 21, Alex Bulmer, a Toronto-based actress and voice instructor, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa, the name given to a group of degenerative eye diseases affecting the retina. As her eyesight faded, she wrote about her experiences in a journal, gradually using more and more imagistic language. Some 13 years later, that writing has now evolved into a short play that, while it remains incomplete as a work of theater, is nonetheless remarkable for its guts and gaiety.
Like Bulmer, Freddie Frederica has retinitis pigmentosa, or RP. As Freddie says in the play: “RP. That’s for the baseball caps and team jackets.” Her sight is disappearing from the center outward; initially, at least, the peripheral vision remains. And we follow her journey as her sight worsens.
There are, of course, awkward moments: Someone asks Freddie to please push three in the elevator and becomes indignant when Freddie does nothing. And there are chilling moments: Freddie, arms loaded with groceries, is menaced and tormented by a young person on the street. When someone else tells her with crass insensitivity: “I can’t think of anything worse than what you’ve got,” Freddie shoots back, “Maybe you’re not thinking hard enough. There’s death.”
People have trouble relating to her. Her friendship with her lover Katherine eventually turns sour; Katherine simply can’t adapt to what’s happening.
But the play is also leavened with moments of rich humor. At one point, Freddie is firmly helped across the street, which is not where she wanted to go. Someone else insists on giving her cigarettes. And there’s a sharply comic scene at the movies, during which Katherine gives Freddie the color commentary as a man and woman make love onscreen.
Diane Flacks, who plays Freddie, is best known as a comedian, but responds here with superbly nuanced and delicate work. It’s a poignant and moving performance. Assorted friends, chance encounters and medicos are portrayed by Kate Lynch and Sherry Lee Hunter.
Director Alisa Palmer, Carolyn Smith (set) and Andrea Lundy (lights) cleverly present a series of images behind a translucent screen, images that become more blurred as the play progresses. It’s an imaginative way of trying to suggest what Freddie is undergoing.
There are relationships that could be explored more fully, and the final speech — a poetic tribute to the lost joys of sight — strains too hard to be the grand closing moment. But it’s a brave and insightful piece of writing.