“Elegy” might be described as a memory play — not because it recalls the past but because it is a play that remembers. As in his earlier play “Constellations” (seen on Broadway last season with Jake Gyllenhaal), playwright Nick Payne uses form to reflect his subject and, by writing in reverse chronology, he restores a relationship that has been obliterated by amnesia.
Payne keeps coming back to the brain. His last play, “Incognito,” which opens in New York next month with Charlie Cox (“Daredevil”) among its cast, was a study of Henry Molaison, a.k.a Patient HM, who lost the ability to form new memories as an unintended consequence of pioneering brain surgery.
“Elegy,” debuting at London’s Donmar Warehouse, presents something similar. Rather than the memory mechanism itself, Lorna (Zoe Wanamaker) loses a portion of her memory bank. Set in the near future, it imagines a procedure to cure an unspecified degenerative disease by removing a part of the brain, and with it, a set of memories. In practice, that means giving up a part of one’s life, perhaps even a sense of one’s self. In Lorna’s case, it’s the last 25 years – years in which she met, fell in love with and built a life with her wife Carrie (Barbara Flynn). “What’s going to happen to me?” she asks her doctor (Nina Sosanya) – a question that concerns her past, her present and her future all at once.
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A poem of a play, “Elegy” is more a situation than a story, more mood than plot. It runs backwards, a shape that, in essence, allows Payne to refresh our memories. Bookended by the same scene of Carrie and Lorna’s first meeting after her treatment, the play adds context to that encounter the second time around with color, feeling and even love. We see the meeting first as Lorna does, stripped of its emotional significance; later, through Carrie’s eyes, aware of everything that has come before. It’s a quiet, contemplative gesture, one that questions the relationship between feeling and thought. Love exists not in the heart, Payne suggests, but in the mind. It is itself, perhaps, a memory.
The reverse chronology recalls Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” but here it becomes an examination of fidelity. As the play works back, Carrie and Lorna focus on the future, and whether or not to press ahead with surgery. Carrie has to trust that some memory of her, some trace of feeling, will survive in Lorna, and Flynn lends her a graceful patience, always standing back, giving Lorna space, supporting her. Her faith runs through the play — in God, in science and in love — so strong and certain it almost remains unspoken.
They are a beautifully drawn couple, so ordinarily in love. Flynn is so solid, Wanamaker so airy, yet as “Elegy” rewinds, you watch the two of them re-entwine, planning poetry readings for their and sharing jokes. They wrap their arms around one another, climb on top of each other, only to end up sat, side by side, in a hospital room, contemplating divorce.
Behind them, in Tom Scutt’s scorched-earth design, beautifully lit by Paule Constable, stands a vast tree trunk, split down the middle – a single thing divided in two, not unlike the brain itself. Josie Rourke’s production does its best to counter the glint of sentimentality in Payne’s writing, inevitable in dwelling so squarely on death, endings and loss, but this is a mournful, minor-key delight: rich, still and ruminative.