It might seem all-too-witty for a SCRABBLE World Champion, when asked by the media for “a few words” on his victory, to admit 'I don’t really know any'. Yet, as this unexpectedly charming one-man-show by Dylan Cole reveals, the answer is all-too bitter-sweet.
A touching study of a man holding on to the end
This particular SCRABBLE champion, Austin Michaels, has what appears to be rapid onset dementia. At his wife’s suggestion, he’s recording his memories but even that’s slipping. Austin sees this, nevertheless, as an opportunity to tell his story, from growing up with his SCRABBLE-fixated Granny to entering competitions and meeting his wife, Daisy.
Cole ensures that Austin is likeable; geekish, obviously—a fan of Star Trek, Nat ‘King’ Cole, film noir and SCRABBLE—who, through learning more than 200,000 words rapidly, makes his way up the World rankings. It’s at a World Championship competition—the year is left unclear—that he first meets Daisy and what we learn of their early romance is endearing. Consequently later when he momentarily forgets who she is, it’s heartbreaking.
Cole certainly knows his stuff; many of the symptoms of dementia are all too apparent here, like the repetitions (not just of familiar phrases but whole paragraphs) and his self-coping mechanism of writing down words on post-it notes to remind himself what he’s talking about. A couple of slips into film noir scenes—with Austin as the heroic private detective—are obviously more specific to this imagined character but they add a layer to his character, helping flesh out the world inside Austin’s increasingly “scabby” brain just as it’s shrinking (the disease proceeding faster that his doctor thought).
One of the secrets of success in SCRABBLE is, apparently, knowing your anagrams. During the play, Austin is able to find a succession of messages in a single set of words on a large SCRABBLE board. Yet even that ability fades. Necessarily, because of the length of the play, Cole has to puts his foot down on the symptoms accelerator but the result is a touching study of a man holding on to the end.