A Play by Barb and Carl

Kim Richardson and Joe Nathan Thomas as Barb and Carl
Photo: Lauren B. Photography

Streaming May 12 – 29, 2022

After its sell out premiere, you can now stream a recording of the live performance online from May 12th through May 29th.

Reserve your viewing and learn more

Sometimes a play is more than just a performance: it’s a work of grief, questioning, processing, healing, and hope. In March of 2017, nationally acclaimed playwright Carlyle Brown’s wife and dramaturg Barbara Joyce Rose-Brown had a stroke which left her with right side weakness and an inability to speak. A dramaturg had lost her access to language. A playwright had lost his dramaturg. As a way of working through their situation, they decided to write a play. This is that play.

This powerful new work is about the aftermath of a healthcare incident and the loss of access to language. When communication as you know it is irrevocably changed, how do you deal with that? How does a marriage evolve? This play is about that marriage. It’s a play about language beyond a spoken word, and it’s an unforgettable love story. This play directly speaks to anyone who has served as a caretaker, experienced a major health crisis, dealt with our country’s healthcare system, or simply loved someone. In other words, this play is a work for everyone.

Cast & Crew

first presented at the Illusion Theater in 2022

Written and directed by Carlyle Brown

Cast

Kim Richardson as Barb
Joe Nathan Thomas as Carl
Laura Esping as Healthcare Worker

Designers

Set Design by Dean Holz
Lighting Design by Alex Clark
Sound Design by C. Andrew Mayer
Costume Design by Barb Portinga
Stage Management by Rachel Lantow

Press

‘A Play by Barb and Carl’ lifts the spirt and moves the soul

by Rohan Preston, Star Tribune, April 12, 2022

Sometimes a show is so moving that it leaves one immobilized well after the lights come up. Wait for the body and spirit, which have become separated in flight, to come back together again and land, softly. Let the last bits of inspiration fall onto you. Breathe.

Such feelings follow “A Play by Barb and Carl,” Carlyle Brown’s power-packed, 80-minute one-act about a couple’s enduring love after one partner suffers a stroke. In this autobiographical drama, now up in a premiere at the Illusion Theater’s new black box theater in south Minneapolis, Barb loses the use of the right half of her body. Carl, her husband, becomes her primary caregiver.

Using alternately tough and tender dialogue plus interior monologues from Barb, the show dives into their shared and divergent frustrations as they navigate the health care system and adapt to new life rhythms.

Don’t be put off by the clunky title. “Barb and Carl” is a must-see that stands out for three principal reasons.

First, the play treats its subject matter with understanding and respect. It fills the rupture that devastates Brown and his longtime dramaturge, Barbara Rose-Brown, with wrenching action. “Barb and Carl” begins after Barb has taken a catastrophic tumble and Carl, living the unstable life of a playwright, drops everything to tend to her.

Even though she loses function in her brain — including the irreverent language they shared working together for decades — the couple forge a system of communication by knowing what the other means even if the words and gestures say the opposite. Barb often says “no” while nodding yes or vice versa.

Second, it is staged without fuss or guile by Brown on a mostly bare stage against a projected backdrop of neurons. Performances by the acting trio of Kimberly Richardson, JoeNathan Thomas and Laura Esping are outstanding and delivered with affecting honesty.

Richardson uses a wheelchair, a quad cane, and her vulnerable body to show Barb’s journey. She makes us feel Barb’s grit and tenacity. There’s never any suggestion that her Barb, whether struggling to vocalize like a baby bird that’s fallen out of a nest or stuck on the floor, is to be pitied.

This Barb was fearless before the stroke and continues to demand that respect. Richardson earns it for her with a touching but uncompromising turn.

Thomas gives Carl his unsentimental yet caring due. Pre-stroke, the couple’s joy centered on work and words. Now, Carl grapples with the loss of his primary audience and support as he becomes those things and more for her. The actor translates his character’s confusion in intonation, gestures and silences. He expresses in the way he looks at Barb or how his hand gently falls on her face as he kneels by her wheelchair.

Esping’s performance shows that her character, generically called Healthcare Worker, deserves a human name. She plays the role with aplomb.

Third, this tear-jerker stands out for its poignant poetry. In nine scenes that range from “Aphasia” to “Pain,” from “I Don’t Want to Live Anymore” to “The Sound of Music,” Brown goes deep into the pangs of catastrophic loss, showing the couple’s attempts to fight back in body and spirit.

There are lots of stories in the canon about impetuous romance — tales of love rising in fullness like the moon. The play looks at the later phases of affection, where one holds the other in an embrace that passes understanding as they face the great beyond.

“Barb and Carl’ makes it clear that that fight against falling into the abyss belongs to all of us.

“A Play by Barb and Carl” at Illusion Theater

by Jill Schafer, Cherry and Spoon May 6, 2012

Illusion Theater is returning to live performances and christening their new space with a new play by Carlyle Brown, Playwrights’ Center Core Writer and playwright in residence with Illusion. You’ve likely seen a play or three by this prolific local playwright at any number of theaters around town, but I venture to say that A Play by Barb and Carl is his most personal. In it, he and his wife and dramaturg Barbara Rose Brown tell the story of their marriage, and how it was affected by Barb’s stroke which left her unable to speak. It’s an incredibly moving and poignant story, well and succinctly told in just 70 minutes, with raw and real performances by the cast. You can see it at the newly expanded Center for Performing Arts in South Minneapolis through the end of the month (click here for info and tickets).

A Play by Barb and Carl has been in development at Illusion through their Fresh Ink series for several years. I’ll let them set the scene: “In March of 2017, nationally acclaimed playwright Carlyle Brown’s wife and dramaturg Barbara Joyce Rose-Brown had a stroke which left her with right side weakness and an inability to speak. A dramaturg had lost her access to language. A playwright had lost his dramaturg. As a way of working through their situation, as they had so often before, they decided to write a play. This is that play.”

A Play tells Barb and Carl’s story, from the onset of her symptoms, through the terrifying stroke, and into her slow recovery. But more than these facts, this play beautifully conveys the emotions of the story. This is done partly through soliloquys delivered by each of the three characters directly to the audience, which gives the audience greater insight into their experience. This is particularly effective when coming from the character of Barb, who cannot speak more than one or two comprehensible words (her favorite: no). But the soliloquys give her a voice, rather than letting the other characters speak for her (in fact she has a soliloquy about that very topic).

In addition to the writing of this well-constructed play, the emotions of the story are conveyed through the excellent performances by this three-person cast, in particular Kimberly Richardson as Barb. Kimberly is an incredibly talented physical actor, one with a rubber face and body that can convey so much with nary a spoken word. She’s mostly used this skill for comedic effect (frequently with Ten Thousand Things or Open Eye Theatre), but here she applies them for dramatic and emotional effect. Through her performance, she deftly conveys the physical limitations of Barb, cradling her useless right arm and struggling to walk with a cane, as well as the rich emotional and mental life inside that’s struggling to get out. It’s a truly remarkable performance that portrays all the complexities of this character and this disease. 
JoeNathan Thomas is also wonderful as Carl, warm and tender, yet exploding in bursts of frustration. The addition of a third character, a nameless Healthcare Worker skillfully played by Laura Esping, adds much to the story not just by showing how essential healthcare workers are when we need them, but also by providing a sounding board or advice-giver for the other characters. All three actors are on stage for most of the show, sometimes standing off to the side watching, sometimes facing away, but always present.

After many years in their space on the 8th floor in the Hennepin Center for the Arts in downtown Minneapolis, Illusion has moved to the Center for Performing Arts, which recently added new and modern construction to their historic building, making it a mix of old and new with many artists in residence. Illusion’s theater space is in the new part, a black box theater which for this performance is set up as a mini-thrust. It’s a more intimate space than their old one, which sometimes felt too big for the work they were doing. The design for this play is simple but effective, a mostly bare stage against a backdrop illustration of neurons, with lighting cues to differentiate scenes and punctuate moments (scenic design by Dean Holzman, lighting design by Alex Clark).

Carlyle Brown wrote and directed the play, with Barbara Rose Brown once again serving as his dramaturg. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult, cathartic, and healing this process must have been. But that’s what artists do when faced with a crisis – they make art. The result is a truly beautiful play about love, marriage, art, language, and perseverance. In the face of a medical incident which changes everything, is love enough?

Review: A Play by Barb and Carl

by Arthur Dorman, TalkinBroadway.com

Illusion Theater is inaugurating its brand new performance space with a brand new play, A Play by Barb and Carl, written by Carlyle Brown, a Minneapolis-based playwright with a national reach, who is currently playwright-in-residence at Illusion. Both the space and the play are modest but extremely effective.

Brown, who is African American, has some twenty dramatic works to his credit, many of them dealing based in historical contexts that address relations between the Black and white races in America in the context of yesteryear. A Play by Barb and Carl draws on a different kind of history–his own, along with that of his wife and creative partner, Barbara Rose Brown. Ms. Brown has served as Mr. Brown’s dramaturg throughout his long career, a role she defines in the play as “being the guardian of my husband’s voice in writing his plays.” Several years ago, Ms. Brown had a stroke that impaired the entire right side of her body and left her with aphasia, robbing her of the ability to speak or write. For two people whose relationship is intricately tied to a passion for words, this was especially devastating.

A Play by Barb and Carl charts the course of the couple’s initial reaction to this calamity, both within their own psyches and in the context of their marriage. That Ms. Brown is credited in the program as dramaturg for this play gives us assurance that she has prevailed, at least to a degree, and is once again able to practice the craft that gives her so much satisfaction and is a defining aspect of her marriage. That is a very welcome kind of spoiler for how their story turns out, and does not in any way diminish the poignancy and insight that is dispensed in the course of the one act play.

There are three characters in A Play by Barb and Carl: Barb (Kimberly Richardson), Carl (JoeNathan Thomas), and an unnamed Healthcare Worker (Laura Esping). All three give razor-sharp performances that serve the difficult subject with honesty, clarity and compassion. At the start Barb experiences the first sign of something being wrong, warning signs that she overlooks–to her peril. Then the attack, the stroke. We know it is coming, yet still feel our throats constrict, our chests tighten with the clear message–there but for fortune go you or I.

From this point forward, we see and hear from both Barb (through interior monologues spoken aloud by Richardson) and Carl regarding the feelings this event has had on their lives, as individuals and as a pair whose long-term partnership and love has faced many challenges before, but never one like this. We witness their efforts to communicate directly with one another, Barb’s voice emitting grunts at the start, eventually able to form words that, with what appears to be great pain and concentration, erupt from her throat. The more she struggles and hesitates to unleash a word, the more closely Carl leans in to draw it out, bending down after she manages “I … want …” to plead with her to take the next step–”What, what do you want baby?,” his eyes searching as if he might see the words pop of her mouth as personalized smoke signals, meant to be read by him alone. When she manages to sputter out the words “I don’t want to live,” rather than despair, Carl celebrates: “Baby, that’s five words! A complete sentence!”

The Healthcare Worker introduces herself with the term “professional” inserted in front of her title, designating her considerable training and licenses, and not the investment in Barb’s health or care that distinguishes her from Carl. She uses that her status as a “professional” to pull rank on Carl’s protests that he knows his wife better than anyone, and therefore understand her needs. It turns out that what is required is for both to stay strong in their convictions about what they have to offer.

The Healthcare Worker at times acts as a physician, at other times a nurse, occupational therapist, or speech clinician. It might have been humane for the playwright to give her a name, but anyone who has been through the blurred ordeal of a health emergency and its aftermath can identify with the sense of those professional health care workers cycling through our days like a rolodex that continues to spin, a whirl of names and credentials that can make us dizzy if we try to discern all the details. And we can identify with the helplessness a parent or partner feels when they ask such a health care professional “They’ll be okay, won’t they?” and the professional gravely responds “We’ll do our best.” Who doesn’t share the thought that Carl here puts into words–”That’s not good enough!”?

Richardson, always an exceptionally adept physical actor, conveys the fortitude with which Barb approaches the task of rebuilding her life, from finding words to learning to walk to coming to grips with how hard these most basic elements of life have become. Thomas reveals the host of feelings anyone in his situation might expect: anger, resentment, inadequacy, sadness and, always visible through the storm, love. The two actors form an indelible pair, expressing their unshakable union through their eyes as much as words.

Esping brings an effective balance of honey and vinegar to her portrayal of the healthcare worker–at times disheartening and coldly clinical, but at other times remarkably helpful and empathic. What she understands, and eventually manages to pass along to the two individuals in her care–for not only Barb, but Carl is dependent upon her and the likes of her–is that, whatever other therapies and drugs may be employed, nothing is more critical to Barb’s recovery than patience and time.

By its nature, the play allows for little in the way of movement, but is staged effectively by Brown, directing his own work. All three actors are always visible on stage, with Alex Clark’s lighting cuing us into where our attention needs to be, as well as to shifts into interior monologue. The spare setting is dominated by a background painting that suggests neural synapses, lighting up in rhythm with their pulsations. C. Andrew Mayer provides the sounds that add authenticity to this journey.

About Illusion’s new home ground: their theater is housed in a new four-story addition to the Center for Performing Arts, a former convent in south Minneapolis. Illusion has traded their proscenium stage for a thrust, with smaller seating capacity so that all seats are close to the performers. It seems ideal for smaller productions, such as its current one, though might be limiting for larger ones, so perhaps that indicates Illusion’s direction moving forward. I will miss the exceptional view toward the theaters of Hennepin Avenue, especially lit up at night, from the lobby of their eighth-floor downtown location, but otherwise, the new space should serve Illusion and their audiences well.

A Play with Barb and Carl is a sobering work, but also a beautifully wrought dramatic love letter. It offers up information on the subjects of dramaturgy, aphasia, and the financial burdens of catastrophic health crisis. What it does best, though, is to unabashedly depict the essential role of love, tempered by patience, to pull through this or any crisis.

Performances

A streamed reading of the play was presented by Illusion and the Playwright’s Center in May of 2021. The live premiere and subsequent performances include:

  • Illusion Theater, April 8-30, 2022
The “real” Carl and Barb