In "Memory," the flawed but indisputably haunting new show by the BackStage Theatre Company, the ever finer Chicago actress Brenda Barrie plays Eva, a Holocaust survivor who suffered unspeakable losses at the hands of the Nazis.
But "Memory," a piece by Welsh playwright Jonathan Lichtenstein that was imported to New York in 2007, is set up as a play within a play. We're in a rehearsal room. Barrie doesn't just play Eva, who is seen both as a 78-year-old resident of East Berlin in 1990 and as a young Berliner during the 1930s and early 1940s, she also plays an actress named Brenda who is rehearsing a piece very much like the one we're watching.
And thus at the climactic moment of the play, when Eva is reliving the agonizing memories she has shut away in order to survive, Brenda the actress is so overcome with the pain of the moment that her director has to feed her the lines. It is a riveting scene — partly because Barrie is so wrenchingly truthful, and partly because the capable Lichtenstein is shrewdly and openly probing the issues that always comes up about the Holocaust.
How can a modern actress — even one as capable as Barrie — possibly create a facsimile of such pain? And even if she can, isn't the very reincarnation of that experience disrespectful, given that it's an easy way to grab an audience by the throat?
The scene kept me awake last night, and stays with me as I write.
But "Memory" — or, at least, Matthew Reeder's uneven production, takes a good while to find its feet. The play, staged in the studio space at the Viaduct Theatre (a poorly designed, chopped-up artistic space that has torpedoed too many shows I've seen there), is designed to start out as a casual rehearsal and let the play itself gradually take over. Fair enough. But this production goes much too far with the casual opening, dissipating focus, paying insufficient attention to the little framing details of time and place and diffusing the energy and the narrative, so that it is much harder for the play to finally grab hold.
Although, with the help of some fine acting, grab hold it most certainly does. Eventually.
There are two main plots. Eva's story involves a friendship with two men — they become a "Jules et Jim"-like trio. But Eva and the man she eventually marries (honestly played by Tony Bozzuto) are Jewish. Their friend Patrick (the similarly powerful Patrick De Nicola) becomes a Nazi. Horrors ensue.
Meanwhile, in another area of the stage, a separate, more contemporary conflict plays out as an elderly Palestinian (Bilal Dardai, doing his considerable best to appear older than his years) refuses to leave a house that a Jewish soldier (Samuel Buti) has been ordered to requisition.
To my mind, the Holocaust story, Eva's story, would be better standing alone. And Lichtenstein is clearly drawing the kind of simplistic and overly crude moral equivalency between these two aggressive acts — even down to parallel lines between the Nazis and the Israeli soldier — that will understandably offend some, and that tends to play better in his native Wales than the United States.
But Lichtenstein is a strong enough writer that he adds plenty of his own struggles to the piece. And he honors Eva and her journey toward the articulation of the truth. So does Barrie, who gives her compelling character every ounce of her empathy, indignation and, most important, her theatrical turmoil.