In 1984, the legendary Joseph Chaikin, founder of the Open Theater, suffered a massive stroke, leaving him with aphasia: the inability to formulate speech. Chaikin’s struggles with his infirmity inspired playwright Susan Yankowitz, who collaborated with Chaikin in the ’60s, to create this tale of Anna (Kimberly King), a noted astronomer who must learn to re-introduce herself to herself and to the world after a head injury steals her ability to communicate with the spoken word. Though Yankowitz’s text quite often resembles an extended lecture with dramatic examples, director Hope Alexander elicits moving, multi-layered performances from an excellent six-member ensemble, highlighted by King’s transcended portrayal of Anna.
When she is first introduced, Yankowitz’s astronomer/college professor protagonist is a dynamic force of controlled energy and understanding in the classroom but cannot always muster the same virtues at home while trying to deal with her career-challenged opera singer live-in boyfriend Daniel (Robert Lee Jacobs) and her willful, insecure teenage daughter Jennifer (Kimberly Rose Wolter). When Anna suffers grave head injuries in an auto accident, blocking the part of her brain that formulates speech, she and everyone about her are thrown back to primal levels of communication. As she struggles to deal with this now alien outside world, Anna discovers a newly developing sense of her inner self.
The evolving drama surrounding Anna’s personal and professional life is so intriguing that the playwright’s insistence on interjecting intermittent astronomy lectures delivered by Anna’s collegiate colleague Bill (James Gale) are a minor annoyance, despite Gale’s warm and ingratiating delivery. The same can be said for the aphasia lectures by Jean Schwaba Vigne’s thoroughly convincing speech therapist. However, Vigne does underscore Anna’s monumental plight when she asks an audience member to try to speak his name and birthplace backwards. The sheer effort it takes to visualize the syllables and then pronounce them is what an aphasia victim goes through “every time they try to speak.”
King offers a tour-de-force portrayal of a caring but driven perfectionist who, in the opening scenes, is used to being devastatingly effective when she speaks. There is minimal body movement or gesturing in her manner, whether she is giving a lecture, skewering her lover for his lack of ambition or commanding her daughter to do her homework.
The transformation of this woman after the accident is mesmerizing. Though at first repulsed by her plight, King’s Anna evolves into a beguiling creature of wonder, who now uses almost every aspect of her body to communicate her thoughts and meaning to others. In one poignantly comical scene, Anna desperately tries to communicate to an obtuse saleswoman (Vigne) what type of dress she is trying to purchase for her daughter, finally letting the saleswoman believe she is Dutch.
Jacobs is excellent as Daniel, who is always balancing his deep love for Anna with his own sense of professional failure. Wolter is also quite effective as the bright but callow teenager who resents as much as mourns the loss of the mother she knew. Steven Amato is quite believable in a variety of supporting roles.
The scenic and lighting designs of Lawrence Miller and Kathi O’Donohue, respectively, do much to offer believable, seamless transitions between the lecture hall and Anna’s Manhattan apartment.