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Central Works’ ‘Winter’ sensitively looks at end-of-life dilemmas

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Phoebe Moyer plays a woman with dementia who is planning her death in “Winter.” (Courtesy Jim Norrena)

It is the winter of Annis’ life in Julie Jensen’s engaging new drama, “Winter.” And it’s winter when her two adult sons and a granddaughter arrive for Thanksgiving dinner. That frosty season, which Annis loves, casts a chilly and in some ways alluring glow over the proceedings, like the snowy painting above the fireplace.

Jensen takes on an important contemporary issue in this rolling world premiere, the 56th world premiere to be staged by Central Works.

Annis, as we find out immediately, knows she is in the early stages of dementia — her intermittent periods of disorientation conveyed by Gregory Scharpen’s sound and director Gary Graves’ lights — and has planned her own suicide “when the time is right.”

Formerly a writer, she now struggles with words and memory. “It’s approaching,” she says, of her oncoming illness, “like the four horsemen of the apostrophe.”

But her husband, a science researcher absorbed with his mouse experiments, is in denial of her rapidly deteriorating condition. And the sons (note to Jensen: couldn’t they have been daughters, when women’s roles are so scarce?) have opposing “what to do about Mom” viewpoints.

Annis’ cheerfully blasé granddaughter, who helps herself to cash from Grandma’s purse when Grandma’s back is turned, is Annis’ best ally.

Other side issues exist for this family, but playwright Jensen’s most serious focus is on the right to die with dignity; the play was inspired, as is noted in the program, by a chapter called “Robeck” in Margaret Pabst Battin’s 2005 book “Ending Life: Ethics and the Way We Die.”

In addition, and amid a rash of plays and movies over recent years about dementia, Jensen is even-handed in exploring the conflicting viewpoints toward elder care that can arise within a family, and in not trying to resolve unresolvable issues.

Still, she’s a bit heavy-handed in telegraphing an all-too-neat, although inevitable, ending. (In real life, when it comes to Alzheimer’s, knowing precisely when “the time is right” can be impossible, and then it’s too late.)

Under Graves’ strong direction, Phoebe Moyer is terrific, both vulnerable and steely-eyed strong, as the frightened but in some ways clear-minded Annis. (Unfortunately, she’s left stranded in her scenes with Randall Nakano, who gives a tone-deaf performance as her husband, undermining the verity of the marital relationship.)

But she’s beautifully supported by Julie Kuwabara as the insouciant granddaughter and by Steve Budd and John Patrick Moore, who so sensitively portray her sons.

Presented by Central Works
Where: Berkeley City Club, 2315 Durant Ave., Berkeley
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 13
Tickets: $15 to $30
Contact: (510) 558-1381, centralworks.org

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