By Karen Isaacs
Forever which is playing at Long Wharf Theater’s Stage II through Feb. 1 may be brief (80-85 minutes) but it packs a big emotional punch.
This world premier by Dael Orlandersmith is part autobiography and part commentary on what influences our lives.
The play starts at the Pére Lachaise cemetery in Paris which has become a tourist destination because of all the famous artists buried there — from Chopin, Seurat and Oscar Wilde, to Proust, Gertrude Stein, Piaf, Richard Wright AND Jim Morrison.
As Orlandersmith wanders the cemetery connecting with those artists that had impacted her life she also notices the other tourists. The boy/man with the guitar at Morrison’s grave and the girl that is almost following her. She begins to reminisce about how she discovered rock ‘n roll in the late ’70s and ’80s in St. Mark’s Place in the East Village.
But she soon moves into a darker territory — her childhood with her mother, an alcoholic and their lives in the South Bronx. Her childhood wasn’t pretty — her mother drank, beat her and denigrated her — today it would be termed psychological abuse.
She tells the story of her friend whose family was just as dysfunctional and how her mother in a fit of cruelty broke up the friendship. It was never put back together even when the two accidentally see each other as in the subway years later.
But the most harrowing moments are as she recounts her rape when she was 14 by a man who entered their apartment one night. It is chilling. Not only the incident itself, but her mother’s reaction to it — more involved with her own feelings than her daughter’s experience. Orlandersmith paints a wonderful picture of the NYC policeman who treats her with sympathy and caring and stands up for her by telling her mother how self-involved is her reaction.
Orlandersmith escaped the environment by discovering music, the East Village scene and like minded people.
What gives this play its punch is the understatement of the writing. Orlandersmith could have — if she were a different, and not as good a writer — turned this into melodrama. Instead she lets the details, the incidents resonate in our hearts and minds. She tells the story, both as the writer and the actress, simply — matter-of-factly — not emoting over the details. It makes it all the more powerful.
As directed by Neel Keller and with a simple set by Takeshi Kata and effective lighting and sound design by Mary Louise Geiger and Adam Phalen, respectively, nothing seems forced or too much. All allow the story to speak for itself.
The result is this story stays with us; we are moved as we are hearing it and after we leave, we are bound to think about the people that influenced us. The people who may be long departed but who still cast shadows over us.
In any piece like Forever one must wonder how much is artistic license and how much is what really happened. Orlandersmith calls this a memoir play not an autobiographical one. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. Forever is an effective piece of theater that will move you.
Forever is at Long Wharf Stage II through Feb. 1. For tickets and information visit longwharf.org.