Review by Byrne Harrison
Photo by Ned Thorne
Inspired by the true story of a man who lost his ability to form and store new memories after brain surgery to cure his epilepsy, Memory River by Vanda is a touching and complex story that explores both what happens to a man who can no longer remember more than a minute or two in the past, and a woman who is so driven by the need to be successful that she passes up the moments of joy in her life and is left with few happy memories of her own.
H.M. (Paul Caiola) is a happy teenager nearing graduation and a limitless future when his first seizure hits. Losing his dignity, his ability to marry his girlfriend (thanks to some 1950's state-sponsored eugenics), and all his plans for his life, H.M. enters a spiral of anger and depression. His Mom (Diane Tyler) prays for a cure, as his Dad (Gary Cowling) withdraws into his work and books. After years of ineffective treatment, a doctor holds out a bit of hope - an experimental surgery that will remove some 'unused' parts of H.M.'s brain, and cure, or at least lessen, his seizures. Unknown to the doctors at that time, the part of the brain being removed, the hippocampus, controls the brain's ability to form and store new memories. Stripped of this small but vital piece of his brain, H.M. lives forever in the moment, unable to remember for more than a few seconds anything since the operation. On the outside he is an old man (played at this point by Gary Cowling), but inside, he is still the young man who desperately wants his life to be meaningful.
Though Memory River follows H.M.'s journey and struggles, it is equally about Dr. Laura Nebbens (played by Michele Fulves and Lian-Marie Holmes, as her younger self), the doctor studying H.M. Despite having a loving girlfriend, Claire (Janelle Mims), Laura's fascination for H.M. and her ambition to make a name for herself lead her to immerse herself in her work, eventually squeezing Claire out entirely. About to be awarded for lifetime achievement based on H.M.'s case, she realizes that she has nothing else left in her life.
Vanda's play is extremely well-crafted. Jumping from time to time like the fleeting memories it seeks to recreate, the play has the feel of a dream. Characters in one time interact with those in another. Scenes from the past are replayed, but they don't match the memories of the characters reliving them. Complex and challenging, it's a fascinating play.
The acting is extremely strong, especially Diane Tyler as Mom and Gary Cowling as Old H.M. Tyler's transformation from a young mother dreaming of her son's future to a woman who has lost her family and her hope is exceptional and heart-breaking. Though Colwing's working class Dad doesn't quite ring true, he does a marvelous job creating an older version of Paul Caiola's H.M., picking up not only the physical and vocal style used by Caiola, but also the shy sense of humor, the facial expressions, and other less obvious cues. Caiola and Cowling make an amazing team as H.M., as do Fulves and Holmes as the older and younger Dr. Nebbens.
Troy Miller once again proves himself to be an exceptional director, and though not all of his choices work (his decision to have the actors create all the sound effects often leads to unintended laughter), the production is extremely strong.
Emerging Artists' Memory River is a well done production of an interesting play. They are to be congratulated for their work.
Written by Vanda
Directed by Troy Miller
Assistant Directed by Christoph Friedrich
Featuring: Michele Fulves (Dr. Nebbens), Diane Tyler (Mom), Paul Caiola (Young H.M.), Lian-Marie Holmes (Bev/Laura), Gary Cowling (Dad/Old H.M.), Janelle Mims (Claire), Matt Hussong (Doctor in Clinic/Dr. Thomas Scutter)
Executive Producer/Artistic Director: Paul Adams
Production Manager: Andrew Ronan
Stage Manager (Series A&B): Alison Carroll
Stage Manager (The Chiselers and Memory River): Terra Vetter
Assistant Stage Manager: Julie Feltman
Set Designer: Tim McMath
Lighting Designer: Jennifer Granrud
Sound Designer (Series A&B): Ned Thorne
Sound Designer (The Chiselers and Memory River): Kristyn R. Smith
Costume Designer: Meredith Neal
Props Master: Sash Gibo
United Stages Liaison: David Bishop
Memory River is performed Wednesday & Saturday at 7 PM, Sunday at 1:00 PM
TADA! Youth Theater
15 W. 28th Street