By Cary Hughes
Review in The Chronicle
Jesse Eustice was away at college in Philadelphia and returned home to find her father had been diagnosed with a dementia resembling Alzheimer's.
For her father, Tommy Thompson, this disease changed more than just his mental health. His entire career was spent traveling as a member of The Red Clay Ramblers and his heyday had come to an end. In the 1970s the locally-based band soared to both national and international fame with their unique genre of music. The "old time string band" performed on Broadway in Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind, on NPR's Prairie Home Companion and all across the United States and Europe before Thompson retired in 1994 due to his illness.
In order to keep The Red Clay Ramblers' fans up to date, Eustice began to write a journal about her experiences with her father's illness and published the entries on their website. Last spring Eustice came to Jeff Storer--a Duke professor and Artistic Director of Manbites Dog Theater--and proposed writing a play about her father's life. Storer was very enthusiastic about the idea since Manbites is "committed to original works and to the development of these works." So, last April the new play, A Tune for Tommy, was workshopped at Manbites and tonight the heartwarming story returns in a more final form.
Many changes occurred since the writers first solicited the audience's opinions last spring. For example, Eustice's character also serves as the narrator, but in this version much of her narration has been turned into action which helps move the play along. Thompson's career with the Ramblers is also more developed in this production so the audience sees more of a transition from the vibrant performer to the Alzheimer's-stricken Tommy of today.
A Tune for Tommy focuses on the love and courage in Eustice's relationship with her father. Eustice's character puts this sentiment best when she says, "I've said good-bye to dad already, but he's still here." Thompson's and Eustice's characters are referred to as "Dad" and "Daughter," respectively, which reveals how universal and relevant their relationship is to all aging father and daughter pairs.
So regardless of your feelings toward the Ramblers' music, this production will be extremely moving and very special for audience members, especially those who've lost someone to Alzheimer's disease.