Caring for a loved one with dementia is no joke — except during those bordering-on-ridiculous moments when you simply have to laugh.
“The good and bad, the funny and the tragic, they all come together,” Woodland playwright David Bareford said of his new dramatic comedy. It grapples with the way dementia robs people of identity — and how some people cling hard to a fading or even imaginary past.
Bareford’s play, “Don Quixote de La Center,” opens Friday at Magenta Theater in downtown Vancouver. It’s a snappy-yet-serious look at life in a fictitious group home in a real Clark County town. One unhappy arrival rebels against his new reality by adopting the romantic persona of a certain Spanish knight-wannabe.
In Miguel de Cervantes’ classic satirical adventure, which was published in the early 1600s and is considered the first novel ever written, Don Quixote is a ridiculous figure who inhabits his own reality and tilts at fantasy foes rather than actual ones.
When Bareford, a lover of classic literature, belatedly read “Don Quixote,” he couldn’t stop thinking about his late father, who refused to part with his longtime identity as a cop.
IF YOU GO
What: “Don Quixote de La Center,” a comedy by David Bareford, directed by Alice Tanzillo
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 12-13, 19-20, 26-27; 2 p.m. Aug. 14, 21, 28
Where: Magenta Theater, 1108 Main St., Vancouver
Tickets: $20 in advance, $22 at the door
“My father had dementia and I helped care for him in an adult family home much like this setting in La Center,” Bareford said. “He was a police officer for 35 years and his identity was really wrapped up in that. That was who he was. He was a big deal before we moved him to the home.”
Resettled in a California group home, Bareford’s father kept living out fantasies about working his beat and taking down bad guys.
“It was weird to see how at sea he was when that identity was taken from him,” Bareford recalled. “Until the day he died, he was still a cop — except he wasn’t anymore. He told people he was, but nobody agreed with him.”
The original “Don Quixote de La Mancha” takes place hundreds of years after the medieval era of heroic knight-errants who (supposedly) ran around the countryside seeking out maidens in trouble and good deeds to do, Bareford said. That’s the joke — and the sadness — embedded in Cervantes’ tale.
“Cervantes writes this story of a guy who wants to return to a time of romance and chivalry but that’s not a thing anymore,” Bareford said. “Everyone tells him there’s no such thing as a medieval knight anymore. He gets abused and beat up by so many people. You start to feel bad for the guy.”
Bareford worked for years in Chicago as a Shakespearean actor and theatrical violence designer safely choreographing scenes that feature combat and swordfights. About a decade ago, he moved with his wife to Woodland, where he got inspired by a neighboring town’s slightly oddball name, which substitutes the Spanish feminine article “La” for “the.”
“I drive by La Center all the time,” Bareford said. “I thought it would be a fun play on words, to set the play in this modern place we know.”
That modern place becomes the setting for unlikely adventure, romance, poignancy and plenty of wisecracks in “Don Quixote de La Center.”
“The humor is a savage humor in some ways, but it’s one of those situations where you just have to laugh,” Bareford said. “I think tragedy is more tragic when there’s comedy around it.”
Bareford said he was thrilled to send his unsolicited script to Magenta Theater and get an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
“It’s an honor,” he said. “It means the theater is investing money and time and resources in it. It’s very humbling.”
He said he declined to direct his own play, although he consulted with some of the actors and choreographed a couple of key combat scenes.
“Theater is a collaborative art,” he said. “I want to see how the work comes to life when it’s done by somebody else.”