Artist writes a musical to cope with his mother’s dementia

by Jessie O’Brien

When you walk in John Thomas’ studio, tucked away off of 9th Avenue, one of the first things you’ll notice is a fireplace mantle that’s been converted into a bar top. The bar isn’t for personal use, though. It’s part of the set he built for the musical, “Mama’s Bar,” which he wrote with his mother while she was in Sunshine Gardens Country Home, a senior home for people with memory problems or dementia. Thomas, a painter, builder, and musician, is using the set in his work-home space as a lab to perfect the play, filled with love, delusions, and mishearings

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John’s mom, Jill Holenbery Thomas, moved into Sunshine Gardens after her husband passed away.

“The last two years I really figured it out,” Thomas said. “Before that, I was just guilty, and paranoid, and freaked out, and unhappy about the whole thing.”

John said he felt guilty because he didn’t know how to relate to her.

“I didn’t know what to do,” he said. “I didn’t know how to talk to her anymore. She was sort of out of it.”

But after those two years, John had a breakthrough when he was tasked with convincing his mom to take a shower, since she wouldn’t do it for the Sunshine Gardens staff.

“She’s like a little kid, you know, she was so sweet,” John said.

He put his arm around her and helped her into the shower. That day, John’s brother, Charlie, called to see how they both were doing.

“I said, ‘Well, this is a real mindbender. There’s no manual.’”

Charlie responded with a quip. “‘Well, maybe you should write one,” he said.

Then, John’s mom, always quick with the humor, replied, “Yeah, maybe you should write about how to take care of your old mom. I’ll help you, but I may not be around for the last chapter.”

From then on, John started being more playful with her. He’d play songs on his guitar and speak to her in poetry to stimulate her brain. The idea for “Mama’s Bar” came about one day when they were at the reception desk at the assisted living facility and his mom was having a delusion. John asked his mom – who’d worked in bars for many years – to pour him a drink of water on the desk. She asked him, “What are you having?” John played along and told her he wanted a beer, to which she responded, “I like you too, dear.” From there, they imagined a world where mama tended bar for her patrons at Sunshine Gardens.

Conversations like that continued to pop up.

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“Once we’d get rolling and we’d start conversing in verse, it was all over. We would just get so far out there,” John said. When he began to write the musical, originally in straight dialogue, the words fell flat.

“Having been a songwriter my entire life, my mind can formulate words better and get a better expression of what I want to say through rhythm,” he said.

That idea gave birth to the fast-paced, bouncing libretto of “Mama’s Bar,” with many of the words taken right out of John’s mother’s mouth. While the musical is an elaboration, John said the underlying purpose of the story is to pass along the insights from his mother about life and living, which she passed along as they wrote this musical over the last two years of her life. The verses are filled with her dry humor and wizened ways of dealing with the overwhelming challenges of being “really old,” as she would say, and making light of her “condition.”

Take, for instance, these lines, derived from what mama said after she and John had been speaking in verse, and he had to remind her they were working on a play.

“So that’s why so many of our words are rhyming. I thought I was going crazy, it’s just lyrical timing,” she said.

He said he was able to unearth new details about his mother’s life by interacting with her this way. He always knew his mother was an accomplished musician – she had played piano from the time she was 5 years old, and could play gigantic pieces of music, like Chopin and Bach. But what John didn’t know was that when she was a little girl, she used to play for her mother, who was an opera singer.

His mother would use lyrics like this one to tell stories of her time with her own mother:

“Before I was married, in the ’20s, long ago, my mother was a singer in San Francisco. I played piano, mother sang “Mack The Knife,” the musicians would show up high as a kite!”

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His mama also had a knack for making light of the process of writing the musical with her son.

“You mean this musical about John’s poor old mother compensating for her deteriorating capacity due to old age and the irreconcilable loss of her husband, to whom she was happily married for 65 years, and sometimes imagines seeing in the blurry persona of handsome men passing by?” she said.

Along with uncovering details about his mother’s past, John also discovered how to cope with a parent with dementia. He said it’s more difficult for the caretakers and the family members to cope than it is for the person with delusions.

“She doesn’t have to deal with it,” he said.

At one point, he asked his mom what it was like to be old. She said, “I forgot I was old. I can’t see myself in the mirror, and I feel just like a teenager. We’re teenagers in decrepit bodies.” John said, “Yeah, with no sense of personal responsibility or long-term consequences?” They had a good laugh about it.

The main purpose of the musical, John said, is to pass along the insights his mother was teaching him about life and living, and to teach others how to interact with their loved ones who have memory problems.

“You gotta get down to the emotional level. If you’re uncomfortable with that because of your own feelings, it’s pretty hard to do,” he said. “So you just kind of dive in and swim with it. No matter how wacky it gets.”

“Mama’s Bar” is the second play written by Thomas. In 2011, he produced “24 Pounds of Bullets and Steel” at the Durango Arts Center theater with Tammy Graham and director Teresa Carson. He is currently looking for a home for the play at a theater company that produces new musicals. He is also testing out rehearsals on the stage set of Mama’s Bar, which was built in his studio, with a live-video podcast hosted by Dave Simmon’s Mac Ranch.

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