Be patient, readers. There is a review in your future, but first—a history lesson. Lithuania is a relatively small (about 3 million people) country on the Baltic Sea, bordering both Russia and Poland. Once a prominent European Duchy, Lithuania has spent most of the last few centuries occupied by one foreign power or another. Lithuanians won their independence at the end of WWI, and it looked like they would after many generations, enjoy autonomy. But Europe erupted in war again, and the little land by the Baltic was invaded, first by the Soviets in 1940, then by the Germans a year later. An era of tumult and privation followed, scarring several generations of Lithuanians, including the generation of actor/playwright Paul Rajeckas.
In what is the first part of a trilogy, Rejeckas presents his personal history as the son of Lithuanian immigrants. The story, in epic fashion, begins in the middle. As a young man during the age of Glasnost, the actor took a trip to his parents’ homeland, and met uncles and cousins he knew little about, and learned of a culture he knew far less about than he thought. Upon his return, it was obvious to him that his trip left him with many questions, and few answers.
We begin in Rajeckas’ tumultuous and unsatisfying adult life, where he confronts both comic and dramatic episodes in his early years growing up in a community of displaced Lithuanians, and ultimately learns of the unpleasant circumstances of his parents’ life in the old country. His mother, in particular, was forced to make decisions that modern audiences will find reprehensible.
That Rajeckas will open the door on such black family secrets, even in the guise of a fictional character, shows a courage that most of us will never have, or need for that matter. That he can sometimes do so with a smile shows not only maturity, but more significantly, impressive artistic instinct.
Think of the funniest joke you ever heard: chances are, there is an element of pain hidden somewhere within. It takes someone with an unusual insight to grasp the razor in his hands, and find a way to run it across your skin so lightly that it is ticklish. Rajeckas does this.
True, Rajeckas is the only actor on stage, but Notes to the Motherland really is a play, not a monologue. The actor plays several characters and paces his transitions so well that the presentation seems not at all schizophrenic, as many similar productions often can be. He is aided by pre-recorded off-stage voices, often voiced by Rajeckas as well. He is further aided by Lois Catenzaro’s excellent lighting effects. Projected mostly from stage level, the lighting alternates throughout the show from realistic to surreal. In the most dramatic, confessional moments, she chooses to bathe the stage in red and white light, creating powerful chiaroscuro effects on the white dome above the Artisphere’s stage, red on one half, white on the other. During some of these intense monologues, I found it more dramatic to watch the giant shadow on the dome than the actor on the stage.
The trilogy’s second installment—Love Cures Cancer: The Musical—debuts next week, and the third—My Lithuanian Sweetheart—debuts a week after that. Though plays about the immigrant experience are well-worn, and plays about the children of immigrants equally so, this story stands out because it mostly avoids the obvious conflicts between, the new and old country, and goes straight to the more important and harrowing conflicts that force us to go to unfamiliar and frightening places, both literally and figuratively.
Notes to the Motherland has closed. Love Cures Cancer runs Sept 23 – 25, followed by My Lithuanian Sweetheart, Sept 30, Oct 1 and 2.
Details and tickets
Notes to the Motherland
A play by Paul Rajeckas and George L. Chieffet.
Directed by George L. Chieffet
Reviewed by Steve Hallex
Running time approximately one hour twenty minutes, with no intermission