Ailing professor goes deep into the proverbial woods in powerful new play ‘The Forest’

ANDREA PHOX, andreaphox.com

Jenny O’Hara stars in “The Forest” at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch.

Pam, a retired professor and an expert in feminism and folklore, knows perfectly well what the forest represents: A place of danger and disorientation, lurking outside the realm of life as you normally know it. She just never thought she would wind up in one herself.

It’s not a real forest, of course. But the central character of Lia Romeo’s powerful new play “The Forest” — currently being presented at New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch, in its world premiere — finds herself increasingly lost in a symbolic one, due to her battle with dementia. The plants in Pam’s home grow over the course of the play — subtly at first, and then not subtly at all — until they threaten to overwhelm her.

Vividly played by Jenny O’Hara, Pam, at first, shows only slight signs of forgetfulness, messing up one of her vegan recipes. “Do you have any baked goods that aren’t disgusting?,” dryly asks her well-meaning but blunt daughter Juliet (Dana Brooke), a high school social studies teacher. Pam and Juliet know things are going to get worse — there is nothing they can do to stop the inexorable slide of dementia — and things do indeed get worse. Soon, Pam is sauteing a shoe, thinking it’s an eggplant. She’s not always able to recognize people. She has moments of hopelessness and panic. It’s heartbreaking, and it will ring very true for anyone who has watched a relative or friend go through this process.

Though Pam is the only character in this play who is experiencing the unique challenges of dementia, everyone else has major issues, too.

Chris Grant and Dana Brooke in “The Forest.”

Juliet, who has moved in with her mother to help out, is reeling from the dissolution of her marriage and frustrated that, while entering middle age, she has not blossomed into as formidable a scholar as her mother was. The caregiver they hire, Miguel (Armando Acevedo), is divorced as well, with limited access to his own children, and makes some questionable professional decisions, regarding Pam, due to his own loneliness. Andrew (Chris Grant), a talented student of Juliet’s, is grieving over a death in his family and “acting out” (as some would say), like many other confused teens his age.

There is a great scene in which Pam mistakenly thinks Andrew is a student of his, and reverts to professor mode. For a moment, she is her old eloquent, capable, authoritative self. Andrew plays along. Juliet looks on, silently, clearly delighted at a glimpse of her mother as she used to be.

Juliet then asks Andrew to pose as a student of Pam’s who needs to meet with her regularly to discuss a paper. It will be healing, she thinks, for Pam. But the plan doesn’t really work out. Like everything else in this play, it becomes a bit of a mess. Because everyone is lost in his or her own forest.

NJ Rep artistic director SuzAnne Barabas directed this production, and scenic designer Jessica Parks gets the credit for making the growing-plants idea work.

Some might consider the metaphor over-the-top but I thought it was effective, tying together all the storylines in a purely visual way. For me, just about everything about “The Forest” worked. The characters were colorful but not cartoonish. We saw — and felt — Pam getting worse, instead of just being told about her condition. And the play addressed her disease honestly, without stooping to melodrama or sugarcoating the worst parts of it.

“The Forest” will be presented by New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch through April 10. Visit njrep.org.

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