Reviews for James Williams

‘Henri’ plays a powerful melody at the Smith Center

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JOHN KATSILOMETES

Cast members Thelma Thomas and James Williams are shown during a performance of “Henri” at Troesh Studio Theater on Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014, in the Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

By  (contact) John Katsilometes

Henri plays the piano, but he is not really a pianist. He used to be. But today he runs his hands across a dining table at an assisted-living facility.

Only Henri hears this song, but it is a sadly familiar tune to anyone who has been touched by Alzheimer’s disease. If you haven’t been, it is one of life’s “yets.” You will be over time, everyone will likely be afflicted or be a caregiver. Some will be both, if they live long enough.

"Henri" is a play at Troesh Studio Theater in the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. The production runs daily at 7 p.m. through Sunday, with matinee performances set for 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday (tickets are $49 and available at the Smith Center website at TheSmithCenter.com).

“Henri” was conceived and written by Ryan Elisabeth Reid, the granddaughter of Sen. Harry Reid, and a daughter of former Clark County Commissioner and one-time gubernatorial candidate Rory Reid and his wife, Cindy.

Henri is at once a character in a play, an inspiration and a real person. He is Cindy’s father and Ryan’s grandfather.

Henri suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. He has been treated for the condition at the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health, just next door to the Smith Center and a partner in the production. Scheduled for after each performance are panel discussions featuring the medical staff at the Ruvo Center, including Drs. Dylan Wint, Jeffrey Cummings and Charles Bernick. Caregivers taking part are Rosemary D’Amato, Lisa Kafuman and Jean Hamilton, all of whom have cared for family members suffering from brain disorders.

As a theater piece, a form of entertainment, “Henri” is a bracing, numbing experience. Two children introduce Henri as the central character is seated silently nearby. The kids read from notepaper, reciting dates and episodes from Henri’s life. The subsequent acts move chronologically through that life, from beguiling child to accomplished musician and instructor to the inevitable outcome where Henri is curled over his imaginary piano.

Reid, it should be noted, is just 24 years old. There was no singular, bell-sounding moment that vaulted her into this particular play, though she says watching her grandfather quietly drawing into a coloring book inspired her to write of the subject. And Reid is already a seasoned writer, having drafted the previous play based on her grandfather, “One Day in the Life of Henri Shnuffle,” which was performed in the spring of 2013 at an underground theater — underground, for real, located beneath the sidewalk — in the East Village in New York. The play was appreciated by The New York Times for its pace and power and for the performance of James Williams, who plays Henri in his 70s.

The performance is produced by Sprat Artistic Ensemble, a 2-year-old company that focuses on works that are personally important to the writers. “Henri” is such a play, and Reid is dedicated to serving the needs of those suffering from brain disorders by supervising the music therapy program in the dementia unit at Isabella Geriatric Center in New York, a nonprofit facility that has been caring for the elderly since 1875.

For all the thought and writing in “Henri,” the dialog is scant. There are long stretches of silence. In one scene, Henri attempts to peel and slice a hard-boiled egg. He struggles with his grip and with his knife and fork, as this egg slips around his plate. He grimaces, struggling to achieve something that decades earlier was a task he performed without thought.

You watch Henri with that egg, and your heart goes out to him. Similar to the woman who wrote that scene, you just want to be there with him, to help him and make sure that he is OK.


Through October 26; Thursday-Sunday, 7 p.m.; Saturday & Sunday, 2 p.m., $49. Smith Center's Troesh Studio Theater, 702-749-2000.

Henri, written and directed by Nevada native Ryan Elisabeth Reid, careens through time—from the 1930s to the present—to show the life of its title character, a musician in advanced stages of dementia. It will reward your patience, and test you along the way.

Story is largely ignored in Henri. The audience is presented with moments, bubbles of time in which to get to know Henri. Strung together, these scenes don’t provide narrative coherence so much as they demonstrate key character traits. Henri moves along excruciatingly slowly at times. Its bookend scenes—Henri in a care center and a portrait of his life just before entering that facility—could practically be mute exercises in movement and character, so little do they depend on what is said.

In both, James Williams, as the elder Henri, is a master of physicality. Wheelchair-bound in the facility he still conveys a stubborn hold on his identity. Later in the play (and earlier in his chronology) his circular movement as he struggles in his apartment presents an alarmingly clear picture of confusion and determination to hold onto the touchstones of his life. Both scenes are punctuated by song, an emotional outburst made more effective for the slow, slow burn to get there. For me, at least. The night I attended, half the audience was held rapt by the struggle; the rest left as quickly as they could.

It doesn’t help that some of Stormy Budwig’s choreography is maddeningly opaque. Why is Henri’s final physical movement to mop the floor? And when the show abandons physicality for dialogue or narrative it makes some alarmingly clichéd choices. A small girl, Blip (forcibly played by Maria Reyna), guides the audience through Henri’s life. She’s the ghost of Henri’s sister who died in childhood, and to make sure you don’t miss any of the symbolism, she wears angel wings.

Still, for me, the subject matter, the superb work of the actors and the high production value ultimately saved the show. The set is spare, evocative and splashy when necessary, and in a play where music is almost its own character, Corey Crellin’s is sparkling. If nothing else, Henri makes for an interesting experience, one both rewarding and exasperating.


By  (contact)

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Cast members Thelma Thomas and James Williams are shown during a performance of "Henri" at Troesh Studio Theater on Sunday, Oct. 19, 2014, in the Smith Center for the Performing Arts.

In just 48 hours, I’ve seen not one but four new shows on Las Vegas stages, and each one was completely different.

‘Henri’

I was emotionally moved and drained by the heart-wrenching play “Henri” at the Smith Center that dealt with elderly patients battling dementia. The production by former Clark County Commissioner Rory Reid’s daughter Ryan Elisabeth Reid stars actor James Williams dealing with Alzheimer’s.

You will have tears in your eyes from his remarkable portrayal of the sufferings and frustrations of patients before death ends the agony. I moderated a panel discussion after the play. Both are riveting, and both help families and caregivers dealing with the assault of Alzheimer’s.

The play continues through Sunday, and I will moderate another panel discussion after the Sunday afternoon performance. I cannot recommend this enough. Although it is tragically sad, it is nonetheless brilliant.