Past Imperfect

Edith Freni’s new play clocks in at 55 minutes, but it’s more substantial than some shows twice as long. Eve (Sarah Nina Hayon) is trying to sell her late mother’s jewelry when she runs into Chet (Justin Blanchard), a boyfriend she had back in high school who dumped her for a fellow student. Their meeting is the catalyst for Eve, now well into her 20s, to recall the pain she felt—and has never really gotten over—from that childhood trauma. Freni presents the details of the trauma, however, in a unique way. Eve has been attending therapy, in which she has to watch others act out her life using the information she has provided. As the meeting with Chet leads to spending time together and a sudden rekindling of their feelings for each other, the bizarre therapy sessions arise in her memory and reveal not only Eve’s story but some extraordinary dysfunction among the participants.

The sessions, which are both humorous and harrowing, are supervised by the earnest Lou (a superb Peter O’Connor), a velvet-gloved martinet who alternately challenges and mollifies his band of misfits. “What is Tenet Number One, Eve?” he asks her. Poor Eve has to check her pamphlet to the scorn of her fellows, but she answers: “Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone.”

Lou is gradually and skillfully revealed as a self-important monster, and the damaged attendees as noxious, though funny, accomplices. They include Sarah (Sharon Freedman), a young woman with low self-esteem addicted to the cake that Eve bakes for the meetings; Jemma (Cynthia Silver), an abrasive impersonator of Eve; and Dave (Vincent Madero), an overeager young man and the only male in the group. “I’m the man,” says Dave brashly, as he winks at the director, Lou, who encourages him with a subtle nod. Yet it’s all surface; Madero’s bluster is a permeable mask for us to see that Dave is deeply insecure but kind-hearted. (Madero also plays the brief role of Eve’s layabout brother, and does it with a risible selfishness.)

But this is Eve’s story, and in telling it, director Erica Gould and Hayon navigate the shifting tones beautifully: the scenes of Chet and Eve tentatively exploring their touchy past, bewildered at the prospect of being thrown together again, have a stillness and depth and melancholy to them. Blanchard brings a warmth and confusion to Chet that win sympathy for his character's predicament.

Yet the tone can switch quickly to the freewheeling egoism of the therapy sessions. It’s a tribute to the fine ensemble that the shifts are seldom jarring. The only drawback is that anyone who hasn’t experienced group therapy of this kind may not latch on right away to the fact that those scenes, with their immature participants, are not actual flashbacks to high school but rather reenactments of Eve's history. (Nobody entering the theater would want to have had the experience of Lou’s therapy sessions anyway.)

Freni’s theme is that sometimes a particular event in one’s life can halt growth and prevent one from achieving happiness. “Father,” Eve asks a priest, “is it possible that one stupid, small thing can happen, that makes something else happen, that leads to something else…so that my life is what it is because of one small event, years ago, that I thought was unimportant?” It’s a notion borrowed from Back to the Future and, of course, It’s a Wonderful Life, but Freni’s treatment is original. Her answer, much more psychologically based, is that only when accepts the past can one move on. In meeting Chet, Eve has a chance to revisit the past, and ironically, to relive it with a different emotional outcome, though some of the particulars stay the same.

Freni also employs symbols skillfully, as two rings play crucial parts in the plot, particularly in the last minutes. The touching, slightly mysterious ending of the play indicates that one cannot discard one's past but must own it before the hope of moving on from it can be fulfilled. If this play were jewelry, it would be a small, exquisite gem.

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