“The Scourge,” a one-woman show written and performed by Michelle Dooley Mahon, directed by Ben Barnes, originated at the Wexford Arts Centre in Ireland and now on at the Irish Repertory Theatre, is ostensibly about Dooley Mahon’s mother, Siobhan, who suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease. But the “scourge” of the title is Dooley Mahon herself, a nickname she acquired when she was a child, prone to rash, impulsive behavior, “skewed thinking,” and had a great love of pyrotechnics. As “The Scourge” develops, Dooley Mahon describes how she responded to her mother’s disease, to her father, and how she, as the primary caretaker – “The Favorite, the firstborn, named after a Beatles’ song, not a saint” – took care of everyone except herself. In fact, she practically took over the Wexford nursing home where her mother resided, having stalked every floor, and inspected every nook and cranny, caring for other residents, becoming, yes, a saint to them while a scourge to those in charge. Dooley Mahon presents this without a shred of self-pity, a lot of excellently chosen music and what I would call a chock-full, person-sized magical cupboard.
There are many props in this show, not least of which is a baby doll. At first, the doll is a stand in for Dooley Mahon as a child but quickly morphs into her mother, as that is what Alzheimer’s does to a person: takes their autonomy and reduces them to a child-like state where they are dependent on those around them to keep them alive. Dooley Mahon has some great observations about death, and says that even in Ireland, land of waking the body in the home, of drinking and singing and celebrating the life of the person in that same home with the body, now death is outsourced, taken elsewhere, so we are divorced from it and have no idea how to cope, how to behave. But Dooley Mahon was so involved in her mother’s care – seven years – and eventual death, that she has not only absorbed but is also able to articulate the experience. “The dead disappear into us,” she repeats, like an incantation, with candles, with flowers, with all manner of things, to keep her mother alive, to keep herself alive, as this show does, as she will, as she goes on.