How deep can one hide the truth? Gabriel Jason Dean’s Terminus centers on the search for the “true true”—a phrase spoken by a few of the characters. It captures the essence of this well-written, thought-provoking play, the second in a seven-play cycle called The Attapulgus Elegies. The collection chronicles the lives of the residents of Attapulgus, Ga., over the course of the last two decades as the town slowly dwindles away.
The protagonist of Terminus is Eller Freeman (Deirdre O’Connell). Afflicted with dementia, Eller is desperately attempting to piece together a truth she either has forgotten or chosen to forget. In an excellent performance, O’Connell gives meticulous attention to the mannerisms and speech, which capture the characteristics of dementia.
As a child, Eller committed a heinous act in an attempt to save her home and keep her family together. Her youth in the racially segregated South was riddled with ugly racial undertones. Nonetheless, she went on to marry an African-American man although she could not live with him. They had a daughter, but Eller cannot raise her as her own.
Now, as an elderly woman, Eller is cared for by her grandson, Jaybo (Reynaldo Piniella), whom she took in after his own mother passed away and his father left; Jaybo is also the product of an interracial relationship. The charismatic Piniella embodies the sweet nature of Jaybo, who feels it is only right that he reciprocate Eller during her time of need. He drops out of school to work at the local steak house to help pay for the mortgage and living expenses. He comes across as sweet and wholesome character. Gradually he starts to mature as he becomes aware of lust, love, and loyalty on various levels. His love for his grandmother is also pushed to the extreme as her condition worsens. He will be forced to learn how deep family ties and secrets run in the Freeman family.
Those secrets are revealed as Eller’s family of ghosts appear through her memories and conscience. Her mother, Leafy (Jessie Dean); father, Jim (Luke Leonard); sister, Annie (Clementine Belder); and husband, Henry, (Shaun Patrick Tubbs) are part of her attempt to revisit the dark memories of her life. Sometimes they’ll interject a comment when they see that she is directing them in the wrong direction and her memory is not accurate. Dean also uses them skillfully to haunt Eller outside of her mind—she frequently sees and hears them throughout the house. They are a device to indicate what may be occurring inside the mind of someone who is battling with memory loss.
Ultimately, Eller pushes away the only person she has left in an effort to save him. After Jaybo’s dad, Bones Boyd (Mat Hostetler), shows up to ask Eller to sign off on the sale of her home, she must decide what is best for Jaybo. Her time of revelation comes at the end when Eller says, “Oh Lord…. I didn’t know it before, but I do now. And I have to say it while I know it. Because knowing is short.” For a person with dementia, “knowing” is indeed “short,” and Dean’s dialogue eloquently captures this symptom. Yet Eller ultimately gets the story straight in her mind, and is able in her clarity to take action to resolve her inner conflicts.
The play, directed by Lucie Tiberghien, resonates with Eller’s struggles. Among them is the daughter she could not raise. Later in the play, it is revealed that her love was not color-blind. The dilemma of a woman who is able to love a man of color but not really accept his race is a deliciously intricate plot element. Is Eller a representation of a hate-filled South filled with racial issues or is she a woman facing the basic human need to want to keep her family? Terminus examines this question with a tightly structured script and a dynamic cast and direction.
Adding to the magic of the play is the set design by D’Vaughn Agu, who uses kitchen appliances as the means for actors to enter in Eller’s memories. The design also manages to give the illusion of a space that is much bigger than what is really there.
Terminus is a heartfelt, compelling drama that is a definite must-see.
Terminus runs through March 10 at Next Door at NYTW (83 East 4th St.). Tickets at $50 (reserved seating) and $35 (general admission) may be purchased by calling (212) 460-5475 or visiting nytw.org/next-door-nytw. Rush tickets (subject to availability) at $25 are available on the day of the show.