MEMORIES MAY BE DANGEROUS TO YOUR HEALTH
Freshly Fallen Snow, by Chicago Dramatists’ resident playwright M. E. H. Lewis, builds its plot upon a recent scientific advancement: the possibility of mitigating the effects of traumatic memories by physically removing them, potentially erasing long-term memory as well. This intriguing prospect is examined through an alternately stylized and touching evocation of memory, identity, and the inextricable web that binds the two, even as the central character’s journey still needs fleshing out. While the script most assuredly needs tending to, it is highly promising and Chicago Dramatists is encouraged to continue nurturing its existence. Likewise, the playgoer is encouraged to attend this thoughtful evening, even though the journey is a bit bumpy.
Dr. Jane Smith (Kirsten D’Aurelio) opens the play with a description of the brain’s web of dendrites and the electronic impulses that compose our thoughts and memories. Lecturing before colleagues, she displays some anxiety as she reveals the success of her experiment on a primate subject, and declares her intention to start human trials. The positive results of these trials are alluded to later, but the play revolves around two conflicts: One is Jane’s need for financial support from the government, which forces her to take as a subject a truculent female Iraq War veteran suffering from PTSD, Sergeant First Class Miller, aka A. J. (Kelly O’Sullivan); the other conflict is Jane’s desire to heal her mother, Clothilde (Ann Whitney), a German immigrant who is still tormented by the firebombing of Dresden.
The loss of memories can have moral and practical consequences, and both A. J. and Clothilde valiantly defend the vital role of recollection, and by extension, the combination of instance and intent that shaped their lives. Lewis’ subject matter is unquestionably compelling, as her script dwells in the moral implications of this sort of scientific research, but the playwright clearly wants the audience to believe that, as layers of recollection are peeled away, concealed deceit ultimately causes more pain than the stark recollection of traumatic event.
Based on the journeys of A. J. and Clothilde, Freshly Fallen Snow is a skillful examination of the impact of altering the content of consciousness, but the playwright has yet to assign a journey to the main character of the doctor; simply having second thoughts about her experiment at play’s end is not conflict enough; there needs to be more at stake for this woman with whom we sympathize little. The professional change that the doctor experiences in the course of the narrative may be immense by her standards, but a corresponding emotional transformation is not evident, something which is exacerbated by Ms. D’Aurelio’s restrained performance. Given the premise of the play, some of Dr. Smith’s medical jargon-filled exchanges with A.J. seem unnecessary—an inconsistency that the soldier herself points out. Still, Kelly O’Sullivan convincingly plays a soldier striving to dwell within a world of masculine camaraderie that may not want her (make-up designer Izumi Inaba does spectacular work creating O’Sullivan’s scar-ravaged face). Ann Whitney’s performance as Clothilde—alternately wry, winsome and tragic—provides the emotional anchor of the evening.
Meghan Beals McCarthy’s direction keeps the action flowing smoothly between 1945 Dresden and 2002 Baghdad, and the doctor’s University office and her home kitchen. The ensemble gamely switch characters—the believability of place and time are never an issue. McCarthy does need to create more nuance for her actors: for example, the doctor magically handles a boiling hot teapot without scalding herself. Overall, the ensemble interludes do not intrude, but reflect the sometimes chaotic chorus of interior life. Abu Ansari and Mildred Marie Langford do well in a number of roles, but Michael McKeogh shines as a kindly doctor who must keep hidden from the Nazis.
The white strings on Courtney O Neill’s austere yet elegant set simultaneously frame and obscure the actors; these floor-to-ceiling strings are reminiscent not only of snow, but of the net of nerves that define us. Rasean Davonte Johnson and Anna Henson’s projections echo both the promised snowfall of the play’s title and the fragmented imagery of war—the latter being far less likely to melt, even as it obscures the wreckage beneath.
photos by Jeff Pines
Freshly Fallen Snow
Chicago Dramatists in Chicago
scheduled to end on October 28, 2012
for tickets, call (312) 633-0630 or visit http://www.chicagodramatists.org
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