People often take the gift of spoken language for granted. Aphasia, which can be caused by any type of brain trauma, shatters that comfortable surety, isolating and frustrating patients and the people around them. Writer/actor Iraisa Ann Reilly took on the gargantuan task of illuminating this lacuna through her performance piece, A Beginner’s Guide to Interpreting Aphasia, a one-woman one-act (still in workshop) at the Drake for one performance during the 2019 Solow Fest.
The setting was the Meadowbrook Nursing Home, and the audience was the residents who had been wheeled into the dayroom to be entertained by a professional musician on the rehab circuit. Sara sunnily sang and played piano for patients of various abilities and interacted with over-the-top cheerfulness directly with the patients she knows (she volunteers to play for them every Wednesday) by reminding them that “brains connect memory to music!”
After a funny rendition of Dion’s “Runaround Sue,” Reilly made a dramatic transition to depict a patient with aphasia due to stroke, a useless left arm contracted at her side, upset because the wrong words are coming out of her mouth. Reilly made many transitions throughout the hourlong show, but the only costume change was how she arranged her long, flowing hair.
From the wretched anger of the stroke patient, Reilly switched back to the cheery musician and played Ritchie Valens’s “La Bamba” (badly) to clumsily relate to a patient named Mrs. Rodriguez. The communication got even worse when Reilly became the registration clerk trying to help Mrs. Rodriguez deal with deliberately confusing insurance forms over an English/Spanish language barrier.
Brilliantly, Reilly played a nurse’s aide, a speech therapist, and various professionals one normally finds in the long-term assisted-care system. But at different times, she also played specific patients who (through her) tell their stories of injury and devastation with glimmers of hope and strength—one of the best is a football star in rehab with paralysis due to an injury.
Before you decide this subject is too difficult and sad to absorb in an hour, the core character, Sara (the showbizzy musician entertaining the troops), is a well-developed personality who lifts the action before the mood gets too hard to bear.
Close to home
After the show, Reilly said she chose this subject because she has an aunt who copes with aphasia following a stroke. “I’ve been a sort of active participant and a fly on the wall throughout these experiences,” she explains of life in and out of assisted living facilities. She feels that it’s “my mission to represent communities and spaces that often go unseen,” spotlighting the people doing the difficult work in this arena.
In addition to this show, Reilly's bilingual and bicultural plays have been staged at Teatro Del Sol (Good Cuban Girls), the 2016 Philadelphia Fringe Festival (One Day Old), and Ocean Beach, which became part of the Eagle Theatre’s New Works Development Series. Recently, her play The Merit Badge was performed at LAByrinth Theatre's Barn Series. She is a member of the Foundry, a development group for Philadelphia-based playwrights, and was recently named a semifinalist for the Page 73 Fellowship.
Philly’s Gabriela Sanchez directs A Beginner’s Guide for Interpreting Aphasia. She’s also the founder and managing director of Power Street Theatre Company, a multicultural theater company led by women of color who work with fellow artists producing, directing, and starring in powerful new plays.
Even though this play is still in workshop, it packs a wallop, exploring many levels and aspects of what it means to communicate. The transitions were smooth, though a few of the characters portrayed were a bit underdeveloped—a drawback when performing a multiplicity of diverse people in a short period of time. However, as this play evolves, I’m sure Reilly will be up to the challenge. She’s perceptive and lives her creations. Only a few performers have attempted this kind of theater (Anna Deveare Smith comes to mind), and as Reilly explores this show more deeply, I have no doubt she’ll transform herself completely to embody the histories of her characters.
I’m looking forward to the next iteration of A Beginners Guide to Interpreting Aphasia. Check out Iraisa Ann Reilly’s website for updates on future performances.
What, When, Where
A Beginner’s Guide to Interpreting Aphasia. By Iraisa Ann Reilly, directed by Gabriela Sanchez. June 17, 2019, in the lobby at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street, Philadelphia. iraisaannreilly.com.
The Drake Theatre complex is fully accessible. Wheelchair seating, companion seating, and mobility and audiovisual-accessible seating is available for all performances. Seating requests can be made prior to the performance by calling (215) 568-8079 or emailing [email protected]. The Drake has gender-neutral restrooms.