If Terry Hands’ emotionally devastating production of “Memory” is a fair indication of the crop of new plays from Blighty, this year’s “Brits Off Broadway” festival promises to be a memorable one. Welsh playwright Jonathan Lichtenstein turns over familiar ground in his unsettling Holocaust drama but finds fresh meaning in past atrocities by relating them to current-day conditions in Palestine. And while his play-within-a-play construction is hardly original, it gives Hands and company a chance to explore the blunt-force impact this kind of material can have on thesps — and should have on auds.
Hands, former RSC a.d. and currently chief honcho at Clwyd Theatr Cymru in Wales, applies his minimalist aesthetic shrewdly to this well-named memory play. Working on a near-bare stage with an ensemble that grasps the value and, indeed, the beauty of understatement, savvy helmer effortlessly persuades us that truth, like the scruffy rehearsal clothes worn by the players, comes in many shades of grey.
In using their own first names, the members of this Welsh company leave themselves open — and terribly vulnerable — to the raw feelings of the fictitious theatrical troupe they play. Under the grim eye of their director, Chris (Christian McKay), who plays soothing Bach on the piano to counterbalance his strict directives, they put off the inevitable as long as they can with rehearsal chatter. But in the end they give themselves up to their characters.
The most compelling of these is Eva, an aging Holocaust survivor living a reclusive life in East Berlin in 1990. In a riveting perf from Vivien Parry, Eva is jolted by a visit from her grandson Peter (Lee Haven-Jones), son of Eva’s daughter (who escaped Germany through the Kindertransport) but a stranger to his lonely, bitter grandmother.
In bringing Eva a fragment of the newly fallen Berlin Wall and demanding to be told the tale of her heroism during the war, Peter opens up two other fields of dramatic action. (Matthew Williams’ sound unites them thematically, while Hands’ lighting gives them their own space.)
The piece of the Wall becomes the touchstone for another series of wrenching scenes, set in present-day Bethlehem, where another wall is being built and another people are being displaced from the land of their birth. Oliver Ryan keeps on message (“I am only obeying orders”) as a stolid Israeli soldier preparing to take over the home of a Palestinian patriarch, while Ifan Huw Dafydd is heartbreaking as the old man — captured in one unbearable moment cradling a beautiful bowl of fresh oranges as he says goodbye to his family home.
But it’s in urging his grandmother to recount her escape from Germany — in a heroic action that saved the lives of a friend’s two children — that Peter shreds the delicate fabric of memory that has sustained Eva in her solitude. Reliving Eva’s war experiences, Parry remarkably casts off the years to show us the anguish of this young wife and mother, weighing the painful choices she must make.
Playwright Lichtenstein, whose own father escaped Germany as a child through the Kindertransport, writes trenchant scenes of direct confrontation and dialogue uncluttered with poetic obfuscation. The play’s conflicts and resolutions are painful in the extreme, and there is, in the end, no release from them — and no relief to be found in false memory.