‘The Mrs Dewinters’ by Elizabeth Burdick

An exploration of dementia, memory, and the transformative power of theater in this play that twists through time.
Featured Image: Lesley A. Sawhill (foreground) plays Helen. Liz Boiko Burdick plays her daughter in law.
Lesley A. Sawhill (foreground) plays Helen. Liz Boiko Burdick plays her daughter in law.

What is The Mrs Dewinters and how did it come about? 

The Mrs Dewinters is a theater piece based on a conversation I had with my late mother in law who had dementia. Her creative use of language, rich history, and vivid imagination made me rethink my own visceral reactions to people with Alzheimer’s. Instead of insisting on my version of “reality” by constantly pulling her into my truth, I learned to live for a bit in her world. Working collaboratively with Lesley A. Sawhill of New Genesis Productions, we explored the depth and breadth of a life well lived, yet full of poignant regrets resolved through fantasy.

The Mrs Dewinters is part of the East to Edinburgh Festival, in New York City, with show times from July 19 through July 22. For more information click here. The play will then go on to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August. 

Who initially inspired you to grapple with dementia? 

My mother had dementia and it was very difficult for me to accept that we had to switch roles. I struggled with powerful negative feelings for the first few years she was with me. Finally, with help from my siblings who shared their creative ways of keeping her healthy and happy, I came to a place of peace and even delight in her. 

My mother in law was a very different person, much more independent and stubborn. Upon her diagnosis, I had to once again grapple with strong feelings. I found a way past her anxiety and inflexibility through our mutual love of acting and theater. Lesley’s mother had passed away recently as well and we were able to use these experiences to inform our work. 

How has working on dementia-related art changed you?

Working on dementia-related art continues to change my outlook on art and aging. I see the tragedy of achieving old age only to find that our society has no place or purpose for the aged and those with dementia. I wonder what my future will be as I become less able to be a help to others and more in need of their help. 

As a theater artist, my work has been focused on developing ensembles with both actors and nonactors. I work in a variety of contexts, churches, schools, theaters, film sets. I seek community, caring, and laughter in my work. This subject fits right in.

How has the work been received? 

So far our work has been presented to fellow actors who have experience caring for loved ones with dementia and a hospice nurse who spends much of her time working with families whose loved one has dementia and is facing death. These folks have delighted in the work, seeing themselves in it. They were inspired to tell their own stories of dementia. Most of them were hilarious and poignant.  

This work is dedicated to: my mother in law, Amy Burdick, my mother, Claire, and Lesley’s mom, Phyllis.

Find more from Elizabeth Burdick and The Mrs Dewinters on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Those interested in the July show dates can follow this link.

What is a Spotlight?

The Dementia Arts Spotlight promotes visual and performing artists who are grappling with dementia through original work or innovative arts programs. The Spotlight—in a Q&A format where artists describe the details and significance of their work or program—connects each artist to the Dementia Spring community. Find examples of prior Dementia Arts Spotlights here. Know of an artist whose work should be Spotlighted? Send them this link!

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