Cohort Report: Searching for a Memory

MRT and playwright Lauren Gunderson, with artistic director Sean Daniels, have another successful play. If you have not been yet, go by Sunday matinee March 10, when the show ends. There are two actors, Miranda Barnett (Lauren) with a banjo and George Judy (PawPaw and King Lear) in a wheelchair. Simple play, right? No, very wrong!

This play tugs at you and may stir a family member memory to sit with you reflecting memories. The actors have you looking back and forward on what has meaning for you. The banjo is gentle and kind, so you may begin to sing along or shed a tear, because “music is how we hear each other”.

This playwright shares her relationship with PawPaw, who is suffering from severe dementia, no longer able to recognize her. It is frustrating and painful to regret all the time not spent with him. So, she brings forth King Lear, a literary figure to roar his madness on the heath, a tract of wasteland, as analogous to where a forgotten mind lives.

When George Judy rises PawPaw out of his wheelchair and roars into King Lear, you are stunned. This scene reflects both their emotions and behaviors of memory and madness that live inside their loss of self.

The very creative set reflects feelings on stage. It is a dazzling montage, piecing together fragments of pictures, text, and music to form the characters past and present identity. When a powerful rain “storm” arises, as a metaphor for “tempest madness”, we are again stunned by King Leer’s rageful rant, and the reality of the staged storm. A set is another character of a play if it is done well – as usual, MRT is very creative.

When Lauren exerts her passion to know PawPaw, we feel her search for his memory is lost. Occasionally he comes into the now but when he returns inside himself, she becomes sad reflecting times not shared. Then, in a fantasy with PawPaw, she is given a box filled with memories they share together. Her legacy. You will want to see her open those memories.

Lauren plays PawPaw’s favorite bluegrass music on her banjo. Barnett has a beautiful soft, lifting voice and easily engages the audience in “You Are My Sunshine” and “Will the Circle be Unbroken” which bring up memories.

The play left me wondering “who are we without the memory?”

–Gail Gauthier, Cohort member


The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.


Cohort Report: An Autobiographical Montage

Shakespeare. The name alone can transport one back to High School English class, your eyes glazing over at the barrage of Elizabethan prose.

Bluegrass. Now we’re talking. Summertime. Jammin’. Sing-alongs.

But what if you merged them together? Well, you would get The Heath, the latest World Premiere production from Merrimack Repertory Theatre. And maybe the two are not so incongruous, for there has always been a bittersweet, even tragic element to bluegrass. The lament of a lost love in a mandolin lick, a freight train’s mournful howl in the drone of a fiddle – or is that the cry of a diminished man who realizes he has lost his kingdom and his mind?

The Heath – an autobiographical montage by Lauren Gunderson – uses monologue, dialogue, projection and, of course, music to explore the author’s coming to terms with a relationship that never was. Like MRT’s recent Slow Food, regret – and how one manages it – underlies the emotions that drive the work.

And the banjo. Did I mention that?

Slated for the role of Lauren, actress Miranda Barnett picked up a used banjo in a shop near her home in South Carolina six months ago and learned to play. Its previous owner had passed away, and the instrument seems to have found the perfect new home with Miranda and MRT. But don’t think her musical skills are lacking. She has a fine grasp of the instrument, with clean fingering and precise rolls. But technical know-how isn’t so important in bluegrass. It’s all about the feeling. Because, as Lauren/Miranda says, “When you strum a banjo, you’re in the South.”

The attempt to recover a missing part of oneself, not only by learning the banjo, but by exploring that unknown lineage, makes The Heath an emotional rollercoaster. You will laugh, cry (do not forget the tissues), and sing along to classic and original tunes. George Judy, who plays Lauren’s “Paw Paw,” is an astonishment, as he moves from lucidity to – well – something else, denying her the opportunity to atone for past contempt and disinterest.

And Shakespeare. Let’s not forget that.

Judy also inhabits King Lear, who Gunderson uses to make sense of this great storm that encompasses her family. When Judy’s rich baritone fills the theater, you are reminded of why the Bard has remained relevant all these years. The vivid characters and stories of hopes and dreams, decline and death are universal, from the 17th century to the 21st.

So the story of King Lear fits these times well. Aging and going mad, Lear recklessly divides his realm between the daughters who shamelessly flatter him, leaving the honest Cordelia disinherited, thus setting in motion an epic tragedy, culminating in Lear’s dramatic soliloquy to the sky, with only the Fool by his side, briefly cognizant of his grave error, naked in the thunderous storm on the heath.

–Karla Sorenson, Cohort member


The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.


What is a heath?

 A heath generally refers to low, open wetlands. The word heath is more closely associated with Great Britain, South Africa, and Australia, but heaths exist worldwide. In America, the words marsh, swamp, and glade (or everglade) refer to the same types of land. 

In Lauren Gunderson’s The Heath, the playwright juxtaposes the struggles of her own grandfather, when he is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s disease, with those of Shakespeare’s King Lear. In Lear, the king rushes from a fight with his daughters into a raging thunderstorm on the heath. The elderly king proclaims the storm and the barren heath to be like the “storm” in his mind. Shakespeare makes the point that all humans, even kings, are vulnerable to the overpowering forces of nature, according to one source at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

In an interview with MRT, Gunderson explains her use of King Lear and the play’s storm in relation to her grandfather: “The storm represents the tumult and uncertainty of my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease, the damage that it can do to a family, the unpredictable sadness and ‘natural disaster’ of dementia.”

Since Shakespeare’s time (King Lear dates to 1606), the heath has served as a symbol of a haunted, bleak wasteland for countless British novelists, including Emily Brontë (Wuthering Heights), Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden), and Arthur Conan Doyle (The Hound of the Baskervilles).

For more on The Heath, visit Lauren’s Tumblr page at, full of  research and notes.



The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.

Miranda Barnett on Learning the Banjo for ‘The Heath’


Actress and classically trained musician Miranda Barnett arrived in Lowell for rehearsal last week with banjo in hand––a difficult instrument she must learn for the first time for her performance in The Heath. A South Carolina native, Miranda and her husband, Aaron, and their two-year-old son, Wilkes, reside in Greenville.

Had you ever played the banjo before?
I had never even held a banjo until six months ago. I have beginner- level experience with guitar, and took cello lessons for a few months, but primarily I am trained as a pianist and singer. So, this prospect was certainly intimidating, but because I began studying music when I was four years old, and music had been around me my whole life, the challenge has been exciting.

How did you acquire the banjo?
When I received the offer to do the play, I borrowed a banjo from a friend, so that I could start tinkering immediately. Then MRT allowed me to shop around for an instrument that I could learn on and carry into the production. I found a beautiful vintage banjo from the early 70s at a shop in South Carolina. It had one owner, who bought it from that same shop, and when he passed away, his family brought it back for consignment. I love it, and I am grateful that I could bond with it before taking it on stage.

How did you go about starting to learn the instrument and the songs?
My husband, Aaron Brakefield, who is also an actor and musician, plays a number of––I’m not sure if I should be proud of this or not, haha––YouTube has been my greatest resource. For the gospel tunes, I found tutorials of arrangements in a Scruggs’ style that I liked and learned by watching and reading the tablature. For Lauren’s original songs, I’ve just followed her lead sheets and listened to a recording of her playing them during a workshop. Peripherally, I’ve also listened to the great players. Lots of Earl Scruggs, Bela Fleck, Noam Pikelny, etc.

And how is it going?
I would say I’m feeling pretty good right now! There’s only one song of Lauren’s that I’ve put on hold until we start rehearsals, because I’m just not sure what to do with it, but I think I have a good grasp on the others. I appreciate that she lets me off the hook by declaring right in the script that, “I don’t play that well.” There’s no expectation of virtuosic playing, thank God!



The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.

Q&A: Playwright Lauren Gunderson

“I felt like my PawPaw, even though he was physically there, was no longer really there.”

Lauren Gunderson_smWhat compelled you to write the script? 

I started the script before my PawPaw died as it occurred to me that the only reference I had for his condition was the literary figure of King Lear. My PawPaw was suffering from extreme dementia and could no longer recognize me. I lived in California, far away from him in South Carolina, which made that worse. When he died I was instantly regretful of all the time I didn’t get with him and started writing this play. It’s a love letter to him, an apology, and a reckoning, as well as a chance to discover a man I thought I knew so well.

What does your mother, PawPaw’s daughter, think of the play? 

Mom has seen me perform it! She was moved and, I think, a little nervous. But the point of the play is to come together, to honor her father, and to confront the darker instincts we have, to turn away from illness and death. But by confronting them (even laughing at them as The Heath does), we can digest and dispel them.

What was the most important thing you learned in researching and discovering your grandfather’s life after he died?

So much! His war history is truly profound to me. What he managed to survive was unreal. I had never read his letters that he wrote from inside a POW prison during the war, which were chilling. I also never knew he called my grandmother “sugar babe” when they were courting. 

How did the addition of the banjo and the songs come about?

I was inspired to add banjo to the play when I remembered how much PawPaw loved Flatt and Scrugg’s bluegrass music. It felt like a crazy challenge to myself. The songs are simple but full of emotion and heart. The big ending song, Storm Still, was the most cathartic to write. It really allows me to say, “I love you, I miss you, I’m proud of you,” to my grandfather.

How does the raging storm in King Lear figure into the story?

The storm represents the tumult and uncertainty of my grandfather’s Alzheimer’s disease, the damage that it can do to a family, the unpredictable sadness and ‘natural disaster’ of dementia. It also represents what I feel as my betrayal of my grandfather by not showing up for him enough when he was sick. His disease and death was a storm, and survivors like me are often left with the emotional wreckage afterwards.

What goes through your mind when you realize that someone you’ve loved and known your whole life no longer remembers you?

It’s pretty shocking and terrible. I felt like my PawPaw, even though he was physically there, was no longer really there. He wasn’t the same man any more. In many ways I felt terrible for him because I know he’d not want to be remembered in such a state. It’s heartbreaking. This is the reality and urgency of Alzheimer’s and dementia research. If we could find a solution to these deteriorating diseases of the mind, it would be such a gift to the world. It would give dignity back to so many. It would save so many lives and families.

What advice would you offer a friend if she told you today that her grandfather had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s?

Show up. Be present. Play music. Tell stories. Get them talking and record it. Say I love you. Take care of yourself.




The Heath runs February 13 – March 10, 2019.