Atlanta-born Alzheimer’s play comes out of the workshop and into national spotlight

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Actor Carolyn Cook, left, and director Adam Fristoe work together during a rehearsal for a workshop performance of "Blackberry Winter" in April 2014. The play, commissioned by Out of Hand Theater, is the story of the caregiver for a parent with Alzheimer's. BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM
Actor Carolyn Cook, left, and director Adam Fristoe work together during a rehearsal for a workshop performance of "Blackberry Winter" in April 2014. The play, commissioned by Out of Hand Theater, is the story of the caregiver for a parent with Alzheimer's.   BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM

Actor Carolyn Cook, left, and director Adam Fristoe work together during a rehearsal for a workshop performance of “Blackberry Winter” in April 2014. The play, commissioned by Out of Hand Theater, is the story of the caregiver for a parent with Alzheimer’s. BEN GRAY / BGRAY@AJC.COM

Starting this week, Actor’s Express  in west Midtown will present two world premiere plays by Yockey, a onetime Atlanta playwright-turned-Los Angeles-based writer of works for the stage, TV screens (HBO’s “The Brink”), even a popular comic book series. On Friday, “The Thrush & The Woodpecker,” opens at the innovative theater located in the King Plow Arts Center; it will run in rotating repertory for nearly a month with “Blackberry Winter,” which opens there on Nov. 6th as a co-production with Atlanta’s Out of Hand Theater.

It was several years ago when Out of Hand commissioned Yockey to write “Blackberry Winter,” a deeply moving, sneakily funny story about a woman caring for her Alzheimer’s-diagnosed mother. The play, which Out of Hand helped Yockey shape along with acclaimed Atlanta actress Carolyn Cook, Alzheimer’s researchers at Emory University and other experts, underwent a series of workshop performances here in the spring of 2014. Even before Yockey finetuned it to its final form, it been chosen by the National New Play Network for a series of “rolling premieres” around the country during the 2015-16 season.

With eight theaters on tap from east (Watertown, Mass.) to west (Eugene, Ore.), the “Blackberry Winter” rollout has set a NNPN record. Adding to the “wow” factor, “The Thrush & The Woodpecker” was recently added to the NPNN rolling premiere lineup, with Actor’s Express becoming the first theater to present both plays together in repertory.

Still, don’t blame Yockey if one “moment” stands out above all the rest where he’s concerned.

“That’s incredible to all of us, I think,” Yockey wrote in an email about the number of theaters producing “Blackberry Winter” in the next year. “But Out of Hand’s upcoming production at Actor’s Express . . . will be particularly special because the same cast who developed the play — Carolyn Cook, Maia Knispel and Joe Sykes — will be in the production.

“It’s basically the culmination of two years of work,” Yockey, who remains an Associate Artist at Out of Hand, concluded. “And we can’t wait to share it with folks.”

Indeed, Cook was determined to again play the lead role of “Vivienne,”  whenever “Blackberry Winter” finally made the leap from workshop to world premiere here.

“I said, ‘As soon as you know it’s going to happen, as soon as you know the dates, tell me,'”  Cook recalled this week.

The Suzi Bass-winning actress (she won Atlanta’s version of a Tony Award in 2013 for “Time Stands Still” at Horizon Theatre) doesn’t just have a strong professional connection to “Blackberry Winter.” She also knows personally the stresses and rewards experienced by Vivienne, who is onstage almost continuously during the 90-minute play. Cook’s mother, June Sparks, was diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, a type of dementia, about seven years ago; along with her two siblings, Cook is a loving caregiver to her mother. All that made her Out of Hand co-artistic director Adam Fristoe’s No. 1 choice for the important role of creating “Blackberry Winter” and Vivienne from Day One.

“She’s said to me many times that she just feels compelled to make art right now, she needs to make art,” Fristoe told the AJC for a Personal Journey about Cook and her mother last year.

“It means something different to her now.”

Vivienne isn’t her story, per se, Cook has always stressed. If anything, she says now, “Blackberry Winter” is a story with meaning for everyone who has or may ever find themselves caring for someone they love.

“I’m thrilled that the play has a life even beyond the production I’m in,” she said. “I’m thrilled so many people are getting access to this important story.”


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