Mary Beth Harris was on the verge of breaking through in Hollywood. She climbed up from lowly production assistant to work in craft and in assistant wardrobe. Then, she rose to background artist (on Night Court, Roseanne and Cheers), and from receptionist to office manager to assistant producer. She was waiting for a phone call about a dream job as executive producer. And the phone did ring. But it wasn’t Hollywood calling; it was her sister calling about their mom, Ellen.
Once an independent woman and artist, now Ellen was 88 years old and getting frail. Advanced rheumatoid arthritis was disabling her body. Her husband had died and she needed help.
After moving her mom into various assisted living facilities in Carmel and Monterey, Harris had a revelation – no one could take care of her like she could. So she became her mom’s caregiver. And that’s the story that makes up the memoir Me? A Caregiver?, which is now a one-act one-woman play being put on and produced by the Carl Cherry Center.
“Mama could no longer shower herself, feed herself, brush her teeth or dress herself,” Harris writes in the play that she will also perform in. “Worst of all she could no longer hold a paintbrush!”
She describes a litany of bodily breakdown, emotional distress, medical decisions and funny episodes, the unstoppable march into old age told in a dramatic and exasperated tone.
But there’s enough homespun humor and Carmel gentility to take the edge off.
There is sweetness: an elderly piano player who doesn’t remember what he’s just played, and so will play the same song again. There is hurt: “Now pain was settling into Mama’s spine and neck,” Harris writes.
“Ninety-nine percent is true,” she says. “I had done some caregiving consulting [which] inspired me to do the play.”
Her partner in the storytelling is director and designer Becca Wolff, who’s won LA and NY Fringe Festival awards.
A good synthesis of the dualistic story is illustrated by the book cover, which one of Harris’s sisters drew: a precocious cartoon of Harris hoisting up her mother, who is wearing adult diapers, like a baby. They’re both smiling, as if bemused.
“[The message] is: lighten up, caregivers,” she says. “I think caregivers sometimes need permission to laugh. It’s a very serious thing.”
So serious that sometimes one can only laugh. Or cry. Or both.
ME? A CAREGIVER? 7:30pm Fri-Sat (Thu preview) and 3pm Sun, April 3-12, Carl Cherry Center, Fourth and Guadalupe, Carmel. $20. 624-7491, www.CarlCherryCenter.org.