Forget Me Not | Upstream Theater

forgetmenot 75You should not miss this fascinating and clever study of the human heart and its resilience, even when it seems that it has been irretrievably shattered.

Forgetmenot 500

Gerry (Jerry Vogel) is a man in late middle age, a surly drunk who mistreated his late wife and has seemingly transferred that animus to his daughter, Sally (Maggie Conroy). Unlike her mother, however, Sally isn’t willing to put up with his behavior and is trying to get through to him past a cold and inaccessible exterior. On this day in Australia, a social worker, Mark (Terry Meddows) contacts Gerry with some astonishing news that Gerry doesn’t believe at first. Sally talks him into going to Mark’s office to see what’s what, and after much resistance, Gerry learns that he’s not a native Australian as he believed. He is, in fact, a Liverpudlian who was stolen from his mother when he was around four years old in the early 1950s and taken to the distant colony where his life became a hell on earth. Gerry has no memory of this event or anything that preceded it.

Upstream Theater’s Artistic Director who also directed this play, Philip Boehm, has included an essay on child migration in the play’s program, and it really should be read to understand what children like Gerry went through. Briefly, kids were taken from their homes in poor neighborhoods where they lived often in the custody of one parent, to resettle in another country. Removing children from war zones was not unheard of, and in fact, Great Britain had been sending children overseas without their parents’ knowledge since the early 17th century. However, the program that took Gerry and thousands like him was predicated on bigotry to try to keep the empire white. They were taken to Rhodesia to keep the country out of black control and Australia and New Zealand to help guard against a growing Asian population. (Some also went to Canada to work on farms.) The idea was that they would be placed in good homes; the reality was that they were not. They grew up in orphanages in dreadful conditions, were physically and sexually abused, and did not go to school but were put in the manual labor force as early as seven years of age. Many were injured. All were damaged. Gerry falls into the latter group.

If a child grows up unloved, he or she will be unable to form loving attachments, so the psychologists say, and in most cases, I expect they’re right. This certainly applies to Gerry. When he learns he does still have a mother back in Liverpool, he says he’s not interested. But, of course, he is. Mary (Donna Weinsting), whom we meet in Act I is an 80-something, cheerful soul who is poor but kind and understanding. When Gerry comes to the tiny flat she has always occupied that was once his home too, she tries to make him comfortable but their meeting is punctuated by awkward silences, she wanting to know too much and he still wanting to guard his secrets. The long minutes are punctuated by the audible ticking of a clock. He starts to storm out a couple of times, but she brings him back and teases his story out of him in dribs and drabs. Or not. Act II introduces another scenario, and it is jarring to the audience. However, you need to hang on because all will come together in the end.

The small space in the Kranzberg Black Box is made even tinier and more claustrophobic by an even smaller playing area on a slightly raised platform bordered by photos of disappeared children and their families. The backdrop is a blowup of four happy looking kids toting suitcases that forms the entire back wall of the set. It even has a door in it, which may represent the rupture of families when it’s opened. There is a loveseat, coffee table and one chair, and this space provides all the locations in the play, representing Mary’s flat, Mark’s office, Sally’s home, a hotel, and even an outdoor site. Nothing much is moved around. For example, Mary serves tea early in Act I, and that set-up is never moved. Neither are a wine bottle, a birthday cake, some broken picture frames—it’s as if all the memories, both known and recovered, are being amassed in one place that comes to represent Gerry’s mind and the story that is locked inside it. Steve Carmichael’s lights illuminate dark corners and Christopher Limber’s sound brings us into the piece.

Boehm’s direction is both delicate and assured, sometimes using stylized movements to help the audience orient itself to time and scene changes. He has control of these actors and this story, so he can then concede that control to his powerhouse cast. Weinsting gives one of her strongest performances as the vulnerable but tough and resilient Mary. When she cries, the tears are real. We can feel her struggles throughout the play’s action, even if what is happening is not always how we expect things to be. Terry Meddows doesn’t have a lot to do, but he is patient and understanding as Mark. Maggie Conroy plays Sally like that character is another part of herself, and Jerry Vogel is simply perfect. The only nit I can find to pick is a couple of shaky accents, but that really is a minor complaint about an extraordinary ensemble. Upstream Theater’s international focus allows us to see works we will not see elsewhere, and its tradition of excellence is upheld once again in ‘Forget Me Not.’

For Gerry and Sally, knowledge comes at a price, but it’s not too high to pay because everyone needs to know that they mattered to someone. The father-daughter relationship evolves throughout the play until their bond is completely altered by finding out the truth of Gerry’s origins. He had a mother who loved him and whose only “crime” was to leave him, as she did every day, with neighbors so she could go to work. One evening when she returned, he was gone. That single act created a hole in both their lives that has to be mended for Gerry to come to terms with his own life. You should not miss this fascinating and clever study of the human heart and its resilience, even when it seems that it has been irretrievably shattered.

‘Forget Me Not’ runs through February 16, 2014. You may contact | Andrea Braun 


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