John P. McCarthy
- New York Critic
Armonk, NY – Hudson Stage Company presents the stateside premiere of “You Will Remember Me,” a cogently wistful drama by French-Canadian playwright Francois Archambault. Theater buffs unable to make it to Armonk before October 29th will have to hope the production transfers to an off or off-off Broadway venue in the near future. By all rights it should.
Translated by Bobby Theodore and directed by HSC co-founder Dan Foster, “You Will Remember Me” is a searing reflection on memory, history and technology. Specifically, it considers the relationship between forgetfulness caused by age-related dementia and the human capacity to suppress painful memories. Boasting five excellent performances, it’s a melancholy, autumnal affair that nonetheless ends on a hopeful note.
Like his filmmaking compatriot Denys Arcand (The Decline of the American Empire, The Barbarian Invasions), Archambault is comfortable using the Quebecois experience as an entre to treating universal themes and offering critical analysis of modern Western society.
The central figure here is Edouard, an esteemed academic in his sixties who is battling a form of Alzheimer’s. Didactic and charismatic, Edouard is quick to hold forth on the dire state of contemporary culture, even though he can’t remember what was said or done two minutes ago. He decries the lack of intellectual curiosity and political engagement among today’s young people, heaping most of the blame on technology. In his view, the Internet and digital revolution have corrupted our minds and made us lazy—“prisoners of an endless present moment.”
Although he relishes playing the pompous misanthrope (prone to slinging harsh pronouncements), it’s easy to see how Edouard charmed several generations of coeds out of their miniskirts and macramé blouses. It’s also clear that being a public intellectual, whose thoughts on politics and other topics of the day are closely followed, is essential to his sense of self-worth. With his gravelly voice, deeply lined face and powerful, sinewy frame, John Hutton brings an ideal mix of intellectualism and animalism to the role.
For Edouard, ideas are, among other things, a means of flirtation and his claims to having had numerous affairs over the years sting his wife Madeleine (played by Susan Pellegrino, so effective in “The Savannah Disputation” at Penguin Rep in 2014). Frazzled by the demands of being his caregiver and generally unfulfilled, she decides she needs a break and, unannounced, drops Edouard off at the home of their forty-one-year-old daughter Isabelle (Susannah Schulman Rogers). Isabelle is a television reporter and must go away on assignment, but her new-on-the-scene boyfriend Patrick (Chris Kipiniak) volunteers to look after Edouard for the weekend.
This set-up seems more conducive to broad comedy than to the poignant (though hardly laugh-free) interactions that follow. Archambault does a masterful job of avoiding the extremes of sentimentality and cynicism; and, thankfully, he doesn’t offer a primer on Alzheimer’s or a gerontological case study. Many theatregoers will be able to identify with the scenario and yet, owing to the play’s tight structure, it feels startling and expected at the same time. The emotions and ideas that are stirred up linger and resonate.
One reason “You Will Remember Me” gets under your skin is all the sexual tension swirling about. Much of it is incestuous and Oedipal—or, more precisely, it involves what Carl Jung termed the “Electra complex”. The attraction between older men and much younger women is also discomfiting, if not taboo. Edouard is an alpha male brought to his knees, metaphorically speaking, by his deteriorating mind. But the women in his life still find it hard to resist his priapic energy.
Susannah Schulman Rogers captures this facet of Isabelle extremely well. The failure of the men in her life to measure up to her father, combined with the fact she has numerous female rivals for his affection, frustrates and angers her. Isabelle doesn’t see that her burnt-out, unemployed partner, Patrick may be the most evolved, even-keeled and strongly compassionate person in her life.
The sense of competition and jealousy between Isabelle and her mother Madeleine is just as palpable; and the play’s pivotal fifth character, nineteen-year-old Berenice (Ella Dershowitz), is also drawn into Edouard’s psychosexual orbit. Archambault, who is sufficiently up on his Freudian psychology to make these dynamics seem plausible yet never sordid, implies that Berenice is seeking a substitute father.
Running without an intermission, the play’s short scenes unfurl haltingly at times. This rhythmic discord is attributable in part to the crinkly scene changes (something that will no doubt improve over the course of the run and which can be ironed out in subsequent productions). The choppiness is deliberate insofar as it mimics how memory works—that is, in herky-jerky fashion with bits of the past recalled in fragments and without a discernible flow or immediately comprehensible pattern.
An exception is a dream-like segment that comes around the halfway mark during which all five characters take to the stage and dance to catchy music presumably from Edouard’s past. Rather than struggle to communicate with words, they are free to express themselves in a bodily manner. Brilliantly conceived and executed (credit Movement coach Tony Yazbeck), this nostalgic interlude provides telling counterpoint to the dialogue.
It’s as if each character’s subconscious, or perhaps their collective subconscious, is being loosed onto the stage for a fleeting moment. The notion of a dream-state is not accidental, of course, and the various production designers make positive contributions that echo this motif—from William Neal’s ethereal electronic music, to the cozy, fall-hued costumes by Charlotte Palmer-Lane, to Steven Kemp’s partially abstract set.
“You Will Remember Me” is as much about misremembering as it is about the inability to remember due to the corruption of gray matter. First, perfect recall is a quixotic goal at best. No one’s memory can be trusted one hundred percent. The process of retrieving a memory always entails some degree of reinterpretation and distortion. Archambault is suggesting that a lost memory or piece of formative experience remains “knowable” on a level in which one’s desires and impulses are not filtered. No matter how inaccurately it corresponds to reality, such a memory is true for the person doing the remembering. It has emotional validity and psychological utility; it reveals what the person doing the recall needs it to signify.
Second, an alternative to engaging in this kind of rewriting of history is to suppress memories that are too painful. Consciously or subconsciously, we “choose” not to remember certain vital things from the past. The kicker is: these squelched memories tend to pop up when we least expect it—for example, in our dreams, when we’re suffering from dementia, or when the mind’s tight grip is loosened by trauma.
All this can be depressing and may even have a tragic ring, but Archambault indicates it’s not the whole story. Although Edouard may be difficult and even destructive, in the end he’s a blessing in the lives of Madeleine, Isabelle, Patrick and Berenice.
Whether we choose to forget or are unable to remember, our memories can never be erased. They are essential to our identity and always find their way to the surface. Edouard believes “You have to raise hell to be remembered!” He may be right. Another take-away from “You Will Remember Me” is that the most common source of hell on earth, so to speak, is a painful memory that is not properly reckoned with and allowed to fester.
“You Will Remember Me” runs at Hudson Stage Company at the Whippoorwill Hall Theatre, North Castle Library in Armonk through October 29, 2016
Photo: Susan Pellegrino and Susannah Schulman Rogers Photo: Rana Faure