Jonatha Brooke’s mother really did have four noses. The Boston-raised singer and songwriter has called her new musical play “My Mother Has 4 Noses.” That sounds like some artsy metaphor of a title, but it’s not, and further explanation would spoil the story.
Suffice to say: anyone who’s borne witness to the mental decline of a loved one is encouraged to make note of this sweet and sensitive memorial Brooke has penned for her mom, whose final years were clouded by dementia. It’s now running at The Duke on 42nd Street.
A poetic tunesmith, Brooke has co-written songs for Katy Perry and The Court Yard Hounds. Her own early albums with The Story and later solo records such as “The Works” and “Steady Pull” earned Brooke a legion of fans on the folk-rock circuit.
Brooke has recorded “4 Noses” as a 12-track CD. Her new play of the same name, interwoven with most of those songs, tells the same story as the recording, but in multiple dimensions: on stage, Brooke narrates the story of her mother Darren’s disease, and the anecdotes she shares are accompanied by photos illuminated on a screen behind her.
Darren Stone Nelson was a published poet, a trained circus clown and a committed Christian Scientist. It’s this last fact that runs like a quivering live wire through Brooke’s story, which chronicles Darren’s distaste for Western medicine, and the frustration it caused mother and daughter as Darren succumbed to what was likely Alzheimer’s Disease, or something similar—she died in January 2012.
So stringent was Darren’s belief in the healing powers of Christian Science that as a student, her daughter had religious exemption from classes where there was talk of disease or death: “I had to sneak over to Suzy Patnode’s house to watch ‘Love Story,’ because there was cancer in it,” Brooke explains, as “4 Noses” gets under way.
Brooke’s skepticism about Christian Science is coupled with her ever-present awareness that her mother needed space for those beliefs. Still, there’s lingering pain when Brooke describes the broken wrist she suffered in sixth-grade, finally splinted by a sympathetic neighbor who was “some kind” of doctor: “He said it was broken, but that it would be OK in six weeks. In about six weeks it was OK. Most Christian Scientists would call that a ‘healing.’” Ouch.
With an artist’s eye for detail, Brooke finds laughter in startling places. Recalling the day when “Paul, from Cremation Consultants Inc.” came to remove her mother’s body, she describes the difficulty the stranger had navigating the gurney around a tight corner, until he was forced to tilt it almost upright: “It was … kind of like that scene in ‘Weekend at Bernie’s’?” The description of what ensued when Darren got it into her head that flushing the toilet “was expensive” is a tale you won’t soon forget.
The songs here are vintage Brooke—melodic and haunting—and the accompanying backstories make them all the more poignant. Ahead of “Time,” written while she was at a songwriter’s conference just before her mother’s death, Brooke characterizes the guilt she felt over traveling as Darren weakened. By the time Brooke arrived for her meetings, she felt like “a soggy piñata … the funniest thing would burst me into tears.”
Brooke is a natural storyteller whose musical gifts translate to the spoken word; “4 Noses” is likely to spark the same sort of conversations about dementia that “Next to Normal” did for depression.
The musical play is artfully directed by Jeremy B. Cohen of the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, where “4 Noses” percolated in an earlier incarnation. Two musicians on stage play cello and electric guitar. The set includes an Oriental rug on the floor and a worktable covered in an orange Mexican tablecloth. On that tablecloth rest her mother’s Bible and some beloved stuffed animals — Darren’s “doggums.”
“Are you getting this down, Boolie?” was a frequent refrain from Darren, who would address Jonatha by nickname when instructing her daughter to jot down for future use some witticism or another. “Are You Getting This Down” also is the name of the song Brooke uses to begin the show. Darren no doubt would be thrilled to know that yes, Boolie got it all down.
“My Mother Has 4 Noses,” through May 4 at The Duke on 42nd Street. Tickets: $70. Call 646-223-3010, or visit dukeon42.org/Shows/2014/4Noses.aspx.
Follow Robert Kahn on Twitter@RobertKahn