Who wouldn’t want to be able to change one’s past and make for one’s self a better future? Kip, the protagonist of Bob Stewart’s A Memory Play, tries to do just that, but, in an odd twist, his changing the past would result in him having no future at all. That may sound more confusing than Stewart’s premise turns out to be. Kip (Trey Albright), the thirty-nine-year-old struggling playwright who narrates Memory, explains that he is using his writing skills to re-fashion the day his parents wed. He expounds that because of the lifetime of cruelty and lies their marriage has inflicted on each other and on their four children, Kip’s memory play would intervene and see to it that his parents never did marry.
Kip relates to the audience how his father, Steve(Artie Ray), a libidinous military man, and his mother, Judy(Susan Izatt), a secretive Southern belle, stole away to a motel room one day in 1947 to negotiate their impulsive marriage. Izatt and Ray act out the events of the day, and Kip occasionally breaks the action to alter something one of them says or does. He explains that seemingly innocuous matters that the two discussed at the time, like whether or not they should wait to have sex until marriage, were warning signs of greater potholes that lay ahead in the rocky road of matrimony. However, the disagreements that Stewart presents never seem as severe as Kip makes them out to be.
Memory emerged from an initial run at the Midtown International Theater Festival in 2000, and its current incarnation at the Workshop Theater suggests that it may still be a work in progress. The show runs a little more than one hour, but there is enough potential for material to comprise a two-hour-plus show. What director Gary Levinson’s staging cannot quite do is show Kip’s audience what these larger problems are, and how troubles snowballed into major domestic problems.
As it stands now, Memory involves little more than having Kip continually interrupt his parents’ dialogue and repeatedly assert how wrong they are together. Levinson needs to be able to find a way to better entwine Kip’s narration on stage right with his parents’ interaction on stage left. The fallout of Kip’s parents’ marriage wouldn’t need to be the focus of the show, but the more future problems the audience can witness, the more urgent Kip’s need to revise his own personal history would feel. Kip is also said to be one of four children; it would have been helpful to hear from or see something about the opinion of the other siblings.
I also found some of Stewart’s toying with dramatic conventions a little cloying. Kip reads aloud a textbook definition of what a memory play is, to humorous effect. But to have him explain later on that a quick change of his t-shirt signifies the passage of time is both lazy and insulting to the audience.
Albright, though, is a great asset to the show in a performance brimming with energy, humor, and most importantly, compassion. A lot of the burden of Memory falls on the actor; Kip must earn our trust that he has good, heartfelt reasons for not wanting his parents to wed, and Albright does that with a deeply human, relatable performance that cuts through the show’s stagier matters. He also plays several minor characters in the 1947-set scenes, including a gay baker and a minister, with aplomb.
Izatt and Ray are also both quite talented, but Stewart’s play reduces them to playing conceits, rather than characters. As Kip re-positions their characters, they have to keep changing, and as a result, what is required of them is something more akin to an improv exercise than a performance with consistent through-lines.
Stewart’s somewhat self-referential idea about the power the writer has as a creative force is a fascinating one, rife with dramatic potential (it is also at the center of Ian McEwan’s Atonement). But Stewart never quite gets to the heart of the matter. Now, according to the script and press notes, Memory is the first part of an intended Marriage Variations trilogy, in which context the play might appear in a different light. In its current version, for all of its talking, Memory doesn’t say quite enough.