The Forgetting Curve
A couple of years ago, Wesley Savick's play "Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M." enjoyed its premiere at the Central Square Theater. Here's a snippet from the review for that play:
"H.M. was a real person. The initials stand for Henry Molaison. Henry suffered from debilitating epilepsy and, in 1953, when he was 27 years old, he underwent a daring new surgical technique to address the problem of his frequent, intense seizures. The operation was a success insofar as Henry's epilepsy became much less severe, but because parts of his brain linked to memory had been removed, the procedure left him unable to form new memories. Henry lived in an endless present moment, each experience and conversation fading away after just a few moments."
That bit of background is just as applicable to the brand-new play by Vanda, brought to the Boston Center for the Arts by the Bridge Rep of Boston & Theatrum Mundi Productions. In Savick's play, a large white box stood in for H.A.'s mind -- his consciousness, his identity, his sense of self, all aspects of the man that were, presumably, impacted by his post-surgical inability to form new long-term memories. Vanda's play, "The Forgetting Curve," steps inside of that box, where fragments of memory swirl around like bits of debris whipped up by a cyclone -- including three identically-dressed men, representing H.M. in youth, middle age, and his senior years (played, respectively, by Conor William Wright, Thomas Kee, and Dale Place).
But there's an intriguing twist here, which is the way H.M.'s memories are observed not just by himself, but by one of his doctors, Laura Nebbens (Ann Talman), who is a fictional creation. Dr. Nebbens looks on as H.M.'s past unfolds before us in a series of scenes set in the family kitchen, and her responses are charged with concern and empathy -- quite unlike the reactions of her younger self (Laura Darrell), who is brilliant and driven but not, as yet, capable of much empathy. (It's this latter deficit as much as anything that's responsible for Nebbens' failing relationship with her wife, Claire (Jasmine Rush).
Younger Nebbens and Claire appear in Dr. Nebbens' thoughts, as she wrestles with herself over the issue of whether to attend a prestigious awards ceremony -- where she will be the recipient -- or go on a trip with her alienated wife and try to salvage their relationship. Young Nebbens appears in the present as well as in recollection, her egotistical demands pushing even as Claire's sad final attempt at reconnection pulls. Meantime, an undercurrent of guilt gnaws at Nebbens, who knows that her intense study of H.M. resulted in the award -- a plaudit received despite the medical establishment's utter inability to heal his damaged brain.
The production offers many bright notions and wry comments. In one scene, June Cleaver appears in a video clip from "Leave it to Beaver," the ideal of post-World War II womanhood, even as long Nebbens and Claire get up to some Sapphic snogging -- it's a forceful repudiation of the cultural forces that think it's "traditional" to suppress, and oppress, women intellectually and sexually.
Vanda's script contains some delicately wrought and heartbreaking passages, also, such as interviews in which H.M.'s remarks take on a recursive quality. "You look familiar," he says to Dr. Nebbens, as her interview continues; and, "I keep wondering if I've done something wrong." You can't help pitying the character (and the man he's based on), and yet marveling at his constant good cheer and unflagging wish to be helpful in some way.
There's also a nifty connection between H.M.'s memories, which spotlight his parents (Kee and Joleen Wilkinson) and Nebbens' own life, both personal and professional: It's none other than Mom who serves lunch to Nebbens and Claire on the day they meet, and an encounter between the embittered, older Mom and Nebbens at the hospital rings with drama.
However, that ringing fails to resound through the play as a whole. There's a sense that this play is meant to assume meaning and significance bit by bit, until the final piece falls into place to tie everything together; that's not exactly what happens. The characters feel not quite finished, as does the general shape of the play; it's like watching a jigsaw puzzle try to assemble itself with pieces not having been cut quite right.
There are fascinating scientific insights revealed here (the nature of memory itself is discussed to good effect), but the dramatic insights are left murky. Why is Nebbens a direct observer (and occasional participant) in H.M.'s memories? The creation of Nebbens as a lesbian and a woman scientist coming of age in an era when neither was particularly welcomed is juicy and promising, but it fails to connect organically with the play's purported central story, that of H.M.
The production, directed by Kimberly Loren Eaton, can hardly be faulted, with its mix of minimal, flexible scenic design (Julia Noulin-Merat), original music (Bevin Kelly), movement choreography (Shura Baryshnikov), perfectly judged costuming (Meganne George), and inventive projection (Eamonn Farrell) that serves to illuminate the subject's clinical content and deepen its emotional resonance. (The tie between the observation that old TV programs and other stories we hear can re-write our memories, and blurry black and white imagery reminiscent of vintage programs and poor, pre-cable reception, is an inspired visual motif.) The single misstep in the play's presentation is an unfortunate bit of blocking that places a desk (and observing character) in the sight line of part of the audience, obscuring the action -- hard to avoid, given the theater-in-the-round seating, but not unavoidable given that the audience surrounds the action only on three sides.
This is some great production just waiting for the script to undergo another draft or two and become great in its turn.