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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Reality Time On The Tube

May 15, 1985|HOWARD ROSENBERG

A horror story . . .

Everything is going right for brilliant poet and college professor Barbara Wyatt-Hollis, who's in her early 50s. She has a good marriage. She has never been more creative. The college where she teaches is considering her for tenure. And she's about to be nominated for a prestigious award.

Then one day she puts salt in the sugar bowl and is abusive to her elderly mother.

Alzheimer's disease.

As we later discover in "Do You Remember Love?" on CBS (9 p.m. Tuesday on Channels 2 and 8), Barbara (Joanne Woodward) didn't become ill overnight. She had been acting strangely for some time and had become progressively worse.

Barbara's husband, George (Richard Kiley), takes her for medical tests. The doctor's crisp, dispassionate, monotone diagnosis hits the couple like a cannon exploding in a library:

"Alzheimer's disease is a form of dementia. We don't know the cause. We do know the results."

A carnivore is nibbling at Barbara's brain. She will keep slipping until her mind is completely gone.

A TV drama about incurable Alzheimer's disease? No surprise, really. In regard to subjects that have some relevance to our lives, TV is far less a wasteland than are theatrical movies. Practically every critical issue or problem confronting contemporary society--from disease and child abuse to nuclear holocaust--is now welcome in TV drama and even on weekly sitcoms.

In this healthy era of "realism," subjects that make America wince are regularly surfacing in a traditionally timid medium that once treated such staples as sex and divorce as capital crimes. Even the grimmest of subjects are easily recognizable, however, hence easily promotable and good box office.

They are also easily trivialized.

TV's execution rarely matches its ambition. Formulas intervene. There have been periods when disease-of-the-month and triumph-over-affliction stories turned TV into a procession of sponsor-pleasing happy endings that collectively distorted the real world.

"Do You Remember Love?" is a soaring exception, thanks to a fine first script by Vickie Patik, tight direction by Jeff Bleckner and bravura performances by Woodward and Kiley.

This story is no fun at all, so ultimately bleak and discomforting that you may want to skip it. But do so and you miss the superb work of Woodward and Kiley. And you miss possibly TV's first honest, uncompromising depiction of a mysterious disease once passed off as senility.

And after you watch "Do You Remember Love?," TV's insultingly comic stereotypes of doddering old fools may seem less comic.

It's painful to see the dissolution of a thinking, spirited, loving person and devastating impact of the disease on her family.

Impatience. Guilt. Sadness. Alzheimer's disease makes everyone a victim.

Barbara seems to diminish rapidly and is no longer able to teach, write or take care of herself. Her occasional moments of clarity are the most painful, for they remind us--and her--of the person she once was. And then one day George finds a scrap of paper on which Barbara has written his name to help her recall it.

"Do You Remember Love?" ends on a note of slender triumph (unfortunately accompanied by manipulative music to bawl by) in a way that reminds us how many Americans have been touched by this terrible, baffling disease.

My wife's Aunt Pauline, whom I remember as being full of fun, has Alzheimer's.

Now 76, she is living out her days in an Omaha nursing home, only fleetingly aware of her environment, not knowing that her husband, Widdy, died a few months ago, unable to recall his name or those of her two married sons, Marshall and Stanley.

When I phoned them separately about "Do You Remember Love?," they told me about their mother.

"I think I noticed something happening about 10 years ago," said Marshall, who lives in Kansas City. "She'd ask the same questions over and over. She used to play cards, but had to give it up because everyone would make fun of her bad memory."

No one was making fun three years ago when Stan, who lives in Omaha, discovered that his elderly father had fallen from bed and that Aunt Pauline was so confused that she had allowed Uncle Widdy to lie on the floor for a day, virtually unattended. When Stan found Uncle Widdy, he was badly dehydrated and barely able to speak.

"It has just been devastating," Marshall said. "It tears me apart to see her. I'm not sure she even knows what century it is."

"She doesn't even know how to write her name," Stan said. "It's just a constant heartache."

"She hasn't known my name for a year," said Stan's wife, Carole. "She calls me 'that girl.' "

Marshall and his wife bought Aunt Pauline a Cabbage Patch doll and sewed on a patch that read "My Name Is Lisa." "She absolutely loved it," Marshall said. "She never put it down. She took Lisa everywhere, even to a restaurant."

"Now it's in a drawer," Stan said. "She doesn't know it's there."

"She was a vibrant lady at one time," Carole said. "She has no personality now. It just disappeared. I worry now that I could end up that way."

No matter our age, more and more of us fear entering that long, dark tunnel. And that is why "Do You Remember Love?" is TV at its most meaningful, a story with universal applications.

So you watch the horror story.

You watch Joanne Woodward on the screen, becoming less and less a person, being pathetically childlike or simply staring vacantly. And you wonder if some day, in five years or 10 or 20, that will be you, or someone you love.

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