“Sometimes leaving home can be a greater act of love,” says the title character of Perdita, “than staying.” An internationally recognized human rights activist, her complicated notions of familial responsibility are rendered still more complex by the knowledge that Perdita is written and performed by the title character’s son. Neither childish tirade nor sentimental portrait, Pierre-Marc Diennet’s moving new play tells the story of his mother’s remarkable life as seen (if not always witnessed) by her devoted son. The smartly structured text consists of a series of scenes that jump between a loosely chronological history of Perdita’s life as an international activist, fighting injustice, and a present day that finds her back in the United States, fighting cancer. Nick Francone’s scenic design includes dates and locations, in the form of postmarks, projected against the set at the start of each scene. It’s a creative design choice that roots each scene in time and incorporates the theme of long distance connections so important to the story; oversized postcard fragments and foreign cityscapes form the production’s backdrop.
Under director Linsay Firman, the disparate scenes of Diennet’s carefully constructed script flow organically into one another. Avoiding the solo-performance convention of directly addressing the audience, Perdita contains only scenes of dialogue between characters. Playing himself, he is refreshingly free of irony and self-deprecation. He treats himself, as a character, with the same integrity and critical eye that he does with all of the characters he portrays. Particularly arresting is a scene of conflict between himself at 15 and his mother just before she leaves him in Geneva; the scene plays like a standard scene of a realistic family drama; not formally acknowledging Diennet’s personal connection to it is an effective choice. His ability to depict personal conflict onstage, and to play both sides of it without wrapping it into a neat conclusion, is in itself a gift to his mother.
While the mother-son drama forms the heart of the story, Diennet includes a host of other characters along the way, and masterfully portrays all of them. He shifts easily from role to role, granting each character extraordinary degrees of specificity. While a scene where he plays a distraught African woman praising Allah in the wake of her daughter's wartime death, comes perhaps a bit soon in the production -- other intense moments that occur later feel more appropriate -- he nonetheless depicts her, like all of his characters, as someone with a meaningful perspective. He's his mother’s son.
The care Diennet has taken with his mother’s story is itself a heartwarming gesture. That he does it so powerfully, and with such substance, makes it not just a gesture but a breathtaking piece of theater. In the second act of the production, Diennet has Perdita tell a Sri Lankan with whom she wants to study nursing in Africa that living the life you want to live is itself a way of loving your family; it’s not hard to imagine that the same is true of storytelling.