BWW Review: YESTERDAY HAPPENED More Science Than Art
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by Nancy Grossman
Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M.
Written & Directed by Wesley Savick; Scenic Designer, Justin Townsend; Costume Designer, Gail Astrid Buckley; Lighting Designer, Jeff Adelberg; Projection Designer, Olivia Sebesky; Assistant to Projections, Zahra Khan; Composer & Sound Designer, Tod Machover; Properties Coordinator & Sound Assistant, Sam Sewell; stage Manager, Dominique D. Burford; Assistant Stage Manager, Alycia Marucci
Performances through May 13 by Catalyst Collaborative@MIT and Underground Railway Theater at Central Square Theater, 450 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.centralsquaretheater.org
Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M. is a memory play with a distinct handicap in that the protagonist, Henry Molaison (the H.M. of the title) has no memory. If he were to narrate his own life story, it would pretty much hit a dead end at age 27 when he underwent experimental brain surgery to treat severe epilepsy. Parts of his brain were removed, unintentionally causing anterograde amnesia, the inability to create new memories. Molaison's condition offered a trove for scientific study and he was followed by researchers until his death at age 82 in 2008.
Playwright/Director Wesley Savick brings the world premiere of Yesterday Happened to the stage with Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, a science-theater collaboration between Underground Railway Theater and MIT, at Central Square Theater in Cambridge. In order to deal with the challenge at hand, Savick relies on transcripts from research studies, the testimony and recollections of ancillary characters, and his own imagination to convey H.M.'s story. The result is a loose collection of scenes and encounters that disseminate a lot of fascinating scientific information, but don't add up to the dramatic expectations of a play.
Once we learn that Henry has trouble remembering things, we are continually reminded of that fact, as if we might be suffering the same affliction. Of course, that is Savick's ace in the hole; that members of the audience can relate to memory lapses and draw connections to their own experiences. However, the lack of bonds between Henry and the other characters (because of his inability to form relationships) limits our ability to feel emotional connection to what's being acted out. There's no conflict to resolve and no character development because Henry doesn't change and the ensemble represents one-dimensional researchers.
The highlight of this theatrical experience is the musicalization by Composer/Sound Designer Tod Machover, affected brilliantly by Pianist Tae Kim. Classical improvisations infused with variations on popular themes strike chords in our collective memory that imply a sense of what Henry's mind might have felt like when something tickled his recollection. I heard snippets of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," "As Time Goes By," and a Scott Joplin riff, to mention a few, woven into the music of the prologue. Kim's accompaniment flows under the play and provides a buoyancy that it otherwise lacks. Sensual dimension is also added by other sound and lighting (Designer Jeff Adelberg) effects, creative use of projections (Designer Olivia Sebesky), costumes evocative of scientific researchers (Designer Gail Astrid Buckley), and Justin Townsend's stripped down set design.
Barlow Adamson is a worthy representative of this intelligent man with a terrible memory. He shows H.M. as jovial and at ease with his situation on the outside, but bemused or experiencing internal struggles when he says "I'm having a conversation/argument with myself." In a scene when H.M. recalls a ride in an airplane as a child, Adamson conveys unbridled joy while running around the room, arms extended out to the side as if he's soaring. At the other end of the life spectrum, he lets us know that H.M. has aged by a husky quaver in his voice and a far off expression on his face. Despite all that his character has gone through, Adamson is totally genuine when he expresses the simple hope that studying him will help someone else.
Steven Barkhimer, Anna Kohler, and Debra Wise play multiple characters, some of whom are real, while others are a blend of the myriad scientists and technicians who studied and worked with Henry across the decades. For the most part, they are serious and focus on him like a bug in a jar; few of these characters relate to H.M. like a person, but Wise portrays Dr. Suzanne Corkin of MIT who maintained a professional relationship with him for more than forty years. She alone emits any warmth towards him.
Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M. raises many questions and fosters discussion to seek more answers. There are numerous "Talk-in-the-Box" events following selected performances featuring Savick, Machover, the members of the cast, and representatives of the scientific community (check out the theater's website for schedule). This comprehensive collaborative approach to exploring the mysteries of H.M.'s life is an asset to the development of the project and a hallmark of CatalystCollaborative@MIT. While I respect their commitment to the pursuit of joining science and art, I'd like to see more emphasis on the emotional aspects of the latter.