Bethpage playwright Joe Beck doesn’t mind sharing the painful truth behind the emotions in “Our Lady of Queens,” his new play about a family shaken by a mother’s dementia diagnosis.
“Our Lady of Queens” tells the poignant love story of James and Lee, an elderly Irish Catholic couple dealing with Lee’s diagnosis of late-stage dementia, who call their three grown children home for a special birthday party.
“I think everybody knows somebody who has been affected by dementia,” says Beck, 56, an English teacher at Plainview-Old Bethpage John F. Kennedy High School.
It was certainly the case for Beck, who drew upon his personal experience as a caregiver for his wife, Gail, who’s suffered for 22 years from epilepsy, which he says can cause temporary dementia-like symptoms.
“It helped me psychologically as an artist to put some of my grief and anguish and emotional stuff on the page and to create art out of what I was going through,” he says.
Gail, who is now 55, has “made a pretty good recovery” thanks to medication and surgery, and will attend the play’s premiere Sunday at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington. Also there will be the couple’s sons — Ian, 24, a graphic designer who lives in Brooklyn, will be in the audience, while Andrew, 29, an actor and co-director with Theatre Out of Bounds at Manes Studio Theatre in Lindenhurst, will portray Marty, Lee and James’ son.
“It hits really close to home, that’s one of the big reasons I wanted to do it,” Andrew said.
A Star Turn
The cast also includes veteran actor Austin Pendleton, whom Beck met and befriended six months ago at a West Village breakfast cafe. After resisting Beck’s overtures to read the play, Pendleton eventually signed on with an “absolutely, yes.”
“I’ve never come across a play that so wrenchingly dramatizes what comes up in a family when one of the senior members of the family is gradually lost to dementia,” Pendleton said by telephone from Manhattan. “I like to keep acting,” added Pendleton, 79, who next month returns to Broadway with Armie Hammer and Blair Brown in Tracy Letts’ political satire “The Minutes.”
This is the ninth full-length play written by Beck, who grew up in Huntington and graduated in 1982 from Harborfields High School. He was inspired to write plays after reviewing a production of Neil Simon’s “California Suite” at SUNY Oneonta, where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in 1986. His first play, “Don’t Leave Tracks,” a tragicomedy about a young married couple questioning their relationship, won a contest in 1993 production and was then staged at The Village Gate, a former Manhattan nightclub. A decade later Beck earned solid reviews and landed a brief phone chat with Mel Brooks after a Los Angeles Times review favorably compared his play “Saddam: The Musical,” to Brooks' Broadway hit “The Producers."
Beck has also worked as a freelance writer on more than 12 books, and he’s interviewed notables such as Billy Joel and Supreme Court Associate Justice Sonia Sotomayor. He began the first draft of "Our Lady of Queens" in 2014 as a project for Long Island native and two-time Tony winner Brian Dennehy.
Elizabeth Falk, the noted opera and stage luminary who is directing, called the play “a loving but hard look at a person in a caretaking situation with a person who is not going to get any better.”
The two-hour play will be performed inside the Cinema’s Sky Room Café with one intermission. A Q&A will follow.
Beck says the audience should be prepared for “a real life, inside, no holds barred view of what dementia is like. I wanted to say it’s not all bad, it’s not all maudlin. It’s important to have a life with it.”