Surviving Grace's Grace

Surviving Grace's Grace Grace Griswald, a very sharp lady in her middle sixties, has dropped in on her daughter Kate, a no less sharp top-rank sitcom writer in her middle thirties. "Oh, my God," says Grace, "look at these lampshades. Like I warned you — dust catchers."

Grace Griswald, a very sharp lady in her middle sixties, has dropped in on her daughter Kate, a no less sharp top-rank sitcom writer in her middle thirties. "Oh, my God," says Grace, "look at these lampshades. Like I warned you — dust catchers."

"Mother," says Kate — covering the phone over which she's having a heated conversation with someone at the studio — "I have a cleaning lady."

"How often — once a year?"

"Mom, I have this wild fantasy that some day you'll say to me, 'Kate, you look fine, your apartment is okay, and even though you're not married, you're working hard at a job you love and doing the best you can, and that's enough for me.'"

Grace, studying her daughter's hair: "Definitely blonder. Tell your colorist he isn't catching the roots. Never mind. [Writes a note to herself.] I'll give him a call . . . Only a mother loves you enough to hurt you." That's the tenor of things until one tiny, almost imperceptible "senior moment," when Grace, at her own "surprise" birthday party, suddenly can't remember the first name of the man, dentist Jack Griswald, to whom she's been married for 42 years.

"A click, a glitch," says Doris Belack, the Grace Griswald of Trish Vradenburg's wisecracking, heartrending Surviving Grace at the Union Square Theatre. "That's the onset" of the Alzheimer's that will bit by bit seal Grace into a cement block of non-responding non-communicability, but not before she tosses out barbs along the way, like: "I have a hard enough time thinking of someone younger than my shoes as a doctor."

And how old are your shoes, Ms. Belack?

"Are you kidding? Do you think I'm going to tell you? No way. No numbers of any kind," says the actress who has portrayed Judge Margaret Barry on TV's "Law & Order" off and on for a dozen years now — "hopefully forever in reruns" — and made a strong cinematic mark as Rita, the producer who hired Dorothy (Dustin Hoffman) Michaels in Tootsie.

Doris Belack's husband is, as it happens, a producer — the Philip Rose who brought Lorraine Hansberry's barrier-smashing A Raisin in the Sun into the world. When were they married? "I came out of the womb saying 'I do.'"

She's known a few older people with dementia, but never anyone with actual Alzheimer's. "The play is partly autobiographical. Trish Vradenburg's mother died of Alzheimer's. No, I didn't go to hospitals, but I did talk with a doctor who's done major research on it, and Jack Hofsiss, our director, gave us some videos to watch — interviews with patients."

Surviving Grace is, in any event, not really a play about Alzheimer's, she feels, "but about Alzheimer's as a catalyst that brings about a resolution of the mother-daughter relationship." In the play, Grace "lives through the daughter [Illeana Douglas as Kate], who does what Grace has always wanted to and never had the courage to do." In real life, it is Doris Belack who has gone and done what her mother, the late Bertha Belack, never was allowed to do: get out of the house, have a career.

—By Jerry Tallmer