TV screenwriter who put spotlight on Alzheimer’s disease
The Washington Post
Trish Vradenburg, a television screenwriter and humorist who became a nationally known activist for Alzheimer’s research after losing her mother to the disease, an experience she chronicled with biting humor in a play, “Surviving Grace,” died Monday at her home in Washington. She was 70.
The cause was a heart attack, said her husband, George Vradenburg, a former general counsel and senior executive for CBS, Fox and AOL Time Warner. Ms. Vradenburg served at the time of her death as vice chairman, with George Vradenburg serving as chairman, of UsAgainstAlzheimer’s, an advocacy group the couple founded in 2010 with the stated goal of “ending Alzheimer’s by 2020.”
By the late 1980s, Ms, Vradenburg once recalled, her “professional life was finally on track.”
She had screenwriting credits on “Kate & Allie,” “Designing Women” “Family Ties,” had written magazine and newspaper humor columns and had published a romance novel, “Liberated Lady” (1986). But for her mother, Bea Lerner, “life suddenly began to unravel.”
“The phone calls started. I started hearing from Mother, and I didn’t like what I was hearing,” she recalled in a 2013 interview with The Washington Post. “My mother was a lioness, a powerhouse. ... But that’s not who was calling me. I could hear her retreating, spiraling down. It just got worse. The confusion, the paranoia. The phone would ring, and I’d brace myself. My mother was no longer my mom.”
Lerner died in 1992. Ms. Vradenburg marshaled her grief — as well as her sense of humor — to write a play first titled “The Apple Doesn’t Fall ...” about a TV screenwriter whose lovably if annoyingly overbearing mother fades away with Alzheimer’s. The play turns on a miracle drug that grants her — and her daughter — temporary relief from the illness.
“I felt totally guilty that I was working and wasn’t paying the attention I should,” Ms. Vradenburg told The Post. “My mother disappeared into the chasm of Alzheimer’s so remarkably quickly. ... It’s not really about Alzheimer’s as much as it is about a mother and daughter reconnecting and understanding and letting go.”
The play opened in 1996 at New York’s Lyceum Theater, directed by Leonard Nimoy and starring Margaret Whitton Florence Stanley.
Amid unfavorable reviews, it closed after one performance.
Remarking to the New York Times that “nothing worth attaining is won by fleeing,” Ms. Vradenburg reworked the play and introduced it again in 2001 at the Kennedy Center’s Terrace Theater (directed by Jack Hofsiss and starring Ilana Levine and Doris Belack) — and the next year at New York’s Union Square Theater (starring Illeana Douglas and Belack). The Vradenburgs provided funding for advertising.
Ms. Vradenburg quipped that “I could have gotten better reviews had I been a member of the Taliban,” but audiences turned out in large numbers for performances. She said she saw the play as a “cause,” helping to reduce the stigma of a disease that affects the lives of as many as 5 million American patients and millions more family members and caregivers. Comedian Carol Burnett portrayed the mother in a 2013 performance to benefit Alzheimer’s research.