“Where does the past exist,” asks O’Brien, “if at all?”
“In records,” replies Winston Smith. He is tied to a chair. “It is written down.”
“In records. And–?”
“In the mind. In human memories.”
“In memory. Very well, then.” O’Brien is about to improve Winston Smith’s memory by having rats chew on his face. “We, the Party, control all records, and we control all memories. Then we control the past, do we not?”
If recent events have caused this passage from George Orwell’s 1984 to occasionally jostle your memory, you are not alone. But what’s an autocrat – whether he’s Big Brother, Joe Stalin or some buffoon who insistently characterizes obvious facts as “fake news” on Twitter – to do with Alexei (David McElwee), a young man with a virtually limitless memory? To say that Alexei has a photographic memory is to understate his capability. When he sees or hears something he remembers it exactly: every word, every impression, every circumstance. He remembers it in order, and he never forgets it. Give him a list of five hundred objects and allow him to study it for a quarter of a minute, and he will give it back to you, in order. Ask him for the list six months later and he will do it again. Now put him in the late 1930’s Soviet Union.
Worse news for Stalin: he’s a reporter. And in the midst of a nationwide campaign to remove the existence of Nikolai Bukharin, a Marxist and a Leninist but not a Stalinist and thus an apostate, from the collective memory, Alexei refuses to forget – and, even worse – is incapable of forgetting. He once reported on a speech Bukharin gave and remembers it, word for word; he remembers the suit Bukharin wore, the look of the sunlight on his face and the papers in his hands, the words of introduction – everything.
It’s not just Bukharin, of course. Alexei remembers everything he ever experienced, including the day of his birth and including his pre-revolutionary days, when Alexei’s father was an officer in the Tsar’s army, and members of his family were important people in the local Church. His mother (Erika Rolfsrud) remembers those times rapturously, and Alexei’s eidetic memory facilitates her nostalgia. That memory eventually proves catastrophic, for both Alexei and his mother.
But now we are in 1957, safely in the post-Stalin era, where, as Kreplev (Lee Sellars) tells Natalya Berezina (Joey Parsons) “with the new leadership in place, we are free now to disagree with the old leadership.” Berezina is a psychologist who worked with Alexei and now, many years later, seeks to have a paper about that work published; Kreplev is a high-level bureaucrat with some unspecified jurisdiction over the publication process. Kreplev’s interest in Alexei is in some part personal: he has a vagrant memory from childhood which he cannot bring into focus, and he thinks somehow that a more thorough knowledge of the man who cannot forget will help him remember.
Thus Memoirs of a Forgotten Man, a play about memory, is itself a memory play, in which Kreplev attempts to tease out details of past encounters from a reluctant Berezina. Kreplev’s main goal is to find out the true name of the memory man, and where he is living; Berezina, who has been around the block, knows the regime’s capability (a post-mortem examination of Alexei’s brain is not out of the question) and is slow to answer. But she is not silent. All other things being equal, she is a humane and decent woman, but she wants to get her life’s work published, and is willing to accommodate.
Memoirs of a Forgotten Man
closes July 29, 2018
Details and tickets
When she does accommodate, she disgorges large parcels of information which playwright D.W. Gregory immediately puts on the stage – Alexei and Berezina together in her office; Alexei as a schoolboy reciting a poem he had written in front of a dyspeptic teacher (Rolfsrud); Alexei at home with his mother and brother Vasily (Sellars), a committed Bolshevik; Alexei with a venomous neighbor woman (Parsons), who turns her neighbors in to the police in order to acquire their apartments or household goods with the same avidity as someone else might clip coupons.
Alexei talks repeatedly about the truths which the State has declared as lies. He does not do this heroically; he seems oblivious to the consequences, and thus naïve, or even socially inept. But consider it from his point of view: if the State suddenly declared that the Sun rose in the West, or that Bill Clinton was actually a woman, what would you do? Could you suffer these obvious falsehoods and incorporate them into your daily life, if your neighbors did the same? Would it not cause you to question your sanity? For Alexei, every deviation from the truth, every stain upon memory, had the same effect: if the truth is not as he remembers it, then it has no meaning at all.
In contemplating Alexei’s dilemma Gregory invites us to consider the role of memory distortion in our own lives. If your memory of your youthful offenses has somehow made them charming, or of your youthful accomplishments has somehow made them important, you are not alone. Nor is Stalin’s USSR the only national culture which relies on compromised memory; the memory of our own genocide against the native population is tinged in sepia and sentimentality, whether of the cowboy-movie shoot-em-up variety, or the white-hero movies like Dances with Wolves.
Gregory and director Ed Herendeen march the personal and political along at an even pace, with strongly established narrative questions cascading one right after another. This is a talky play, but the production keeps us engaged throughout. Much of this is due to the pacing of the dialogue between the play’s principal objects of our attention, Berezina and Kreplev. Parsons – a superb actor – and Sellars fall into their roles with great naturalness; it is readily apparent that Berezina and Kreplev, though they do not know each other, know each other’s type. One is the cobra and one is the mongoose, but which one is which? Sellars, a CATF veteran who has not graced the festival for several years, is better than ever in this. He is fully satisfying as Kreplev and absolutely convincing when he plays Vasily at sixteen, despite the fact that Sellars is a mature man.
Unfortunately, Gregory has chosen to gift Alexei with another unusual mental trait – synesthesia. The synesthesiac perceives objects, events and concepts through senses not available to the rest of us. Thus colors have sounds; words have odors; numbers have personalities. (The most famous synesthesiac was the great novelist Vladimir Nabokov; Billy Joel also has this gift, as do some other artists). Alexei thus remembers things not only in exquisite detail but using sense words unrecognizable to the rest of us. The first time we hear it the effect is kind of poetic, but after that it drags a little. Moreover, the synesthesia does not serve the story’s purpose; although one of Alexei synesthesiac utterances offends a character, resulting in disaster, Gregory could have accomplished this objective simply through Alexei’s awesome memory or general lack of social grace, with greater effect.
Gregory, though, has modeled Alexei on an actual person: Solomon Shereshevsky, who was a man with an astonishing memory and also a five-sense synesthesiac. Shereshevsky came to the attention of the Soviet neurologist A.R. Lauria in much the same way that Alexei comes to the attention of Berezina (criticized at work for not taking notes, he responded by giving a speech back word-for-word, astonished that not everyone could do this). Lauria later published a book about Shereshevsky – The Mind of a Mnemonist – and that book guided Gregory’s development of the character. Life can, and should, inspire art, but an artist of Gregory’s gifts is entitled to edit life for art’s sake, and in this case, I wish she had.
Memoirs of a Forgotten Man, by D.W. Gregory, directed by Ed Herendeen, featuring David McElsee, Lee Sellars, Joey Parsons, and Erika Rolfsrud . Scenic design by David M. Barber . Costume desiby by Therese Bruck . Lighting design by D.M. Wood . Sound design by Victoria Deiorio . Clifford Glowacki is the technical director . The production stage manager is Debra A. Acquavella . The stage manager is Lindsay Eberly, assisted by Madolyn Friedman . Produced by Contemporary American Theater Festival . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.