Joseph Sherman’s play is a brave, outstanding work that confronts the experience of Alzheimer’s.
Last Words is a play by Joseph Sherman that explores his family history (his is a Jewish family from Odessa, Ukraine, that settled in St Kilda in Melbourne in the 1970s) and his parents’ experience of Alzheimer’s disease. Sherman is a doctor and a playwright, and his play offers an interesting mixture of oral history, performance art and conversations about cognitive health. This is a unique and unusual project in that it blurs the boundaries between conversation and performance, and the transitions between the two are handled quite adeptly. It also blurs the boundaries between languages – English, Russian and Yiddish – and this is the most remarkable aspect of the work. The seamless oscillation between languages (and the distinct facial expressions, postures, gestures and movements each impels) strikes a resonant chord with polyglots of migrant backgrounds, as it beautifully encapsulates the fluidity (and drama) of everyday conversations in diaspora households. Sherman enacts this adroitly.
Sherman tells the story of his Jewish parents’ pre-war life in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, and how they survived the Romanian and German occupation of Odessa (during which large numbers of Jews were massacred or forced to flee). He tells the story of their arrival in Australia and the conflicts that punctuated their family life here. Last Words is Sherman’s attempt to recuperate his parents’ memories in the aftermath of their disease.