Half Life at the Herald Theatre

By Reviewed by Dionne Christian

Shirley Kelly brings a poignant authenticity to her portrayal of a rest home resident with Alzheimer's disease who finds love in her later years.

The veteran Wellington-based actress knows first-hand the impact of the degenerative brain disease, having nursed her husband, Ted, who had the condition.

Questions raised in the play Half Life about memory loss and its effects on the body, soul and spirit tempted Kelly, 75, to take to the Auckland stage for the first time in a career spanning six decades.

When she read the script for the second time, she was tempted to phone director Amanda Rees at 4am to say it was so wonderfully written she had to be in the play.

Set in a war veterans' rest-home, Half Life is about Clara (Kelly) and Patrick (Graham Smith) who appear to rekindle a possible war-time romance - but whether they were previously acquainted is unclear.

It could be a figment of Clara's increasingly unreliable memory, which causes her mathematician son Donald (Peter Daube) to frown on the budding romance. However, Patrick's artist daughter Anna (Donogh Rees) encourages the relationship, thrilled that her father is re-discovering love and beauty.

In exploring love in later life and what endures when memory fades, Half Life weaves its scientific and philosophical strands in a script that cast members and director Amanda Rees describe as warm, thought-provoking and surprisingly funny. "There's not a word out of place."

One of the questions is "who's exactly living the half life?" Is it Clara and Patrick, free from many of their inhibitions and fears, or their middle-aged children who keep meeting, definitely have a spark but are too bound by social rules and propriety to act on their feelings?

That mathematical science plays a strong part comes as no surprise given the pedigree of the writer of Half Life, Canadian John Mighton, who straddles science and art, writing award-winning plays as well as lecturing in mathematics.

He was initially asked to double-check the math in the film Good Will Hunting but instead landed a small part. His character expounded the belief that ability - in any field - can be developed through concerted effort and patient teaching rather than resulting from genius.

It is a belief Mighton shares, talking on the phone from Toronto: "I got the lowest mark in my creative writing class and I almost failed calculus but I worked at both subjects to get results. It can be done."

But he is self-deprecating about his early plays even though he won a slew of awards for productions such Scientific Americans, A Short History of Night and Possible Worlds.

They became successful, Mighton says, thanks to working with good directors rather than anything he did.

In his late 20s, Mighton pursued a second career far from Broadway. He returned to university to study mathematics, graduating with a doctorate. He says moving from a university English department to the mathematical laboratories was not such a stretch.

"As a kid, I loved reading sci-fi and could see the combination between literature and science in these books."

Mighton credits his mother, Marion White, with teaching him determination and self-belief and it is for her that Mighton wrote Half Life.

"She was an amazing woman who was involved in all sorts of charity work and local politics. We quite often had African students living with us whom she sponsored to study at university."

When she was admitted to a rest home following a stroke, Mighton marvelled at her indomitable spirit as well as those of her fellow residents. He began noting down some of the conversations he overheard.

"My mother shared a room with this woman who spoke in a stream of consciousness of events and memories going back 80 years. It was almost beautiful; she was so poetic in the language she used."

Mighton didn't realise he was writing a play until about three years ago when his thoughts about memory in general began to crystallise. Half Life premiered in Canada last year, winning him more honours and awards.

Given the pluck his mother demonstrated throughout her life, Mighton could not have picked a more suitable actress to play Clara in the New Zealand production.

A performer since she was 15, Kelly followed in a modified form the dream she and her husband harboured before he died, selling their home and travelling the country by campervan.

Feb 14-Mar 4

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