Few people knew that John Mann had early-onset Alzheimer's when his wife Jill Daum started writing what would become a play about a couple dealing with the disease. Mann was a public figure: front man for the band Spirit of the West and a busy actor. They were worried about the impact of going public on his career and their lives. They kept his diagnosis quiet.
Now, as that play, Forget About Tomorrow, is about to have its world premiere, Mann's situation is well-known: revealed by Mann, Daum and the band in 2014, reported widely in the media and subject of a feature documentary, Spirit Unforgettable.
The one person who is probably not aware of what's going on now is Mann himself.
"That's the heartbreaking thing," says Daum from Victoria, during rehearsals at the Belfry Theatre. "I really don't know if he'll be able to see it."
Mann was 50 when he was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. He continued to perform until 2016, when Spirit of the West played their final shows. But his decline has progressed into what Daum calls the "brutal" part of the disease. He is now living in a care home.
"He's agitated a lot and uncomfortable and uncertain of what's going on," she says. "He doesn't get very many moments of calm or peace or loving, and it's challenging for people to be with him."
Making art can bring light to the darkest places. And for Daum, who in the years I have observed her navigate this nightmare appears to be nothing short of saint-like, writing her first play single-handedly has been not just a respite, but a joy.
Daum is best known for being part of the Mom's the Word collective; co-creating and co-starring in the laugh-a-minute stage shows about motherhood. Forget About Tomorrow is the first play she has written on her own, and it marks the first time she and Mann – her husband of 29 years – have collaborated on a script.
She says Mann was "really jazzed" about the project and wanted to contribute. He wrote two songs for the play. "And they're the last two songs he ever wrote."
Daum began writing the scenes that would become this play during an intensive theatre workshop for women. It began as the story of an everywoman character who works in a high-end children's store (Daum was working at a Vancouver children's bookstore, Kidsbooks, at the time). But the Alzheimer's content kept creeping into the scenes she was writing, which would be read out at the workshops.
"But nobody in the group knew that John had Alzheimer's," Daum explains. "So they would read the scenes out loud and they would discuss it and nobody knew and it was so therapeutic to me. It was like I got to discuss it with people without having to deal with the ramifications of it all. So it was like this little secret pocket. And they had no idea the therapy that they were providing me; they just thought they were giving me feedback on these scenes."
The play begins prediagnosis, when Tom (Craig Erickson) is struggling at work and in his private life, but it's unclear why. This is taking a toll on his marriage to Jane (Jennifer Lines), who can't understand his odd, inexplicable behaviour. It is not uncommon, Daum has learned, for marriages to struggle at this point. This was her experience, too. She was unsure what was going on: Was it a midlife crisis? A mental-health issue? Anxiety?
"It's like, why can't you get better?" she recalls. "Can't you just kick this thing? Because we thought it was mood-related. Nobody, nobody, thought John had Alzheimer's."
So imagine if at that stage, somebody new came along – someone who was infatuated with you, the wronged wife, and came on really strong? And this is going on at the same time you are learning your husband has Alzheimer's? Could this new guy be your way out of an inevitably deteriorating and devastating situation? This is the tricky question explored by the play.
"I'm hoping it creates a dilemma for the audience, too," Daum says. "What should she do?"
While the play is clearly informed by Daum's own experience, this particular aspect is not. "It's fictional fantasy, that's for sure," Daum says with a laugh, when asked about it. She adds that Mann enjoyed reading the part of the extramarital love interest, back when he could read. He enjoyed the flirting and connection between the two characters and getting an insight into what Daum thought was attractive in a man.
He was so supportive of the project, Daum recalls, that she would often set him up with Netflix downstairs at their home while she went upstairs to work on the script. "He would always say, 'You go write – I'll be just fine here. Go write, Jilly. Go write.'"
Michael Shamata, artistic director of the Belfry, was invited by Daum to see the play at a staged reading during the 2015 Vancouver Fringe Festival. The room, he recalls, swelled with emotion.
"Oh my God, I was bawling. Everyone was bawling," Shamata says. "There wasn't enough Kleenex to go around. People were sobbing out loud. It was a remarkable afternoon."
Shamata signed on to direct.
"For me it's a gift to be allowed into their world. It's tragic but beautiful, the grace with which both of them are navigating it."
The play goes to unexpected places – and it's funny, which might also be unexpected in a play about the effects of Alzheimer's on a family.
The development of Forget About Tomorrow was supported by Vancouver's Arts Club Theatre Company. As part of that process, a staged reading took place at ReACT: New Plays in Progress in 2015. Mann was in the audience.
"It was actually really beautiful," Daum says. "He stood up. He stood up and applauded."
Since then, his cognitive abilities have declined. His condition is such that Daum can't bring him to the world premiere in Victoria and it's unclear if he'll be able to sit through the show when it opens at the Arts Club in Vancouver in March. She's thinking about bringing him to watch it from the booth or the back of the house, where he can be taken out easily if things don't go well. "But I really don't know how much he would be able to comprehend," she says.
It's a grim situation that sometimes makes its way into the rehearsal hall.
"Certainly, there are times when the emotion overtakes the actors and there's no denying that John is in the room with us in spirit," Shamata says. "Everyone's very, very respectful of where this play started and what it means to Jill. There's a sadness around it. Because it just gets worse, John's situation. So for hours and hours, we just work like we would work on any play, and then, once in a while, there's a wave of that that hits."
One might question the healing value of immersing oneself in a play about Alzheimer's when one's real life is being consumed by the disease on the home front, but Daum says working on the play has had a very positive effect.
"There's something about adversity: If you can see any point to it, that it can help you. And it's such a pointless, horrible disease. So if the point was we could tell this story and do what stories do for people with it, then that helped us. It has helped us so much," she says. "And now I'm just really hoping it helps somebody else too."