Clear the Room: “Absence”

Photograph credit: Kalman Zabarsky.

Presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre
Written by Peter M. Floyd aka PFlo
Directed by Megan Schy Gleeson

February 6 – March 2, 2014
Boston Playwright’s Theatre
Boston, MA
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Review by Noelani Kamelamela

(Boston) Absence, Peter M. Floyd’s first full length play, is a multi-layered and filmic production at Boston Playwright’s Theatre which was both a terror and a joy to see.

At a slim 90 minutes without intermission, it is finely focused on Helen, who in her 70s experiences the slowly squeezing hand of time on her body and mind, but not her soul.  Kippy Goldfarb, who stepped up when Joanna Merlin took ill, as Helen is a clear and self-possessed woman, and it is hard to believe that Helen could, in fact, be suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s at all.  Helen’s passion play is underscored by a serious exploration of how her family and herself must undertake to keep her as safe and as sane as possible.   As an unreliable narrator, Helen experiences a dizzying group of symptoms, enabled aptly by excellent ensemble work as well as a fluctuating set, costume changes, appropriate lights and atmospheric music to ensure smooth transitions from scene-to-scene.  Set, props and the ensemble contributed directly to make a simple room become many rooms, with clever use of the wings and semi-visible upstage area all of which change to echo and support the action onstage. This production makes real the flexible nature of memory, how it seems to appear and disappear in daily life, how it is necessary and how, sometimes, it is not.  The protagonist does not lack for focus or purpose, but as her life becomes reduced, she prioritizes less and less, she is less able to hold onto the past and she becomes able to do less, but she is no less alive.

Always capable of human emotion and action, Helen is not diminished.  In particular, the connection between Helen and her daughter, Barbara, played with spirit by Anne Gottlieb, builds to an explosive and loving climax. Living in the moment is what we give up when we can live in the past and adhere to routine: Helen becomes liberated within from the clutter of remembrance piece-by-piece, and by the curtain’s close, she is absolutely free.

This is a show that has a melancholy topic. It was not easy to watch. There are fears and frustrations that are explored which were for me, personally painful and horrifying.  Moments of comedy and wit cut the darkness down to lingering shadows, but this is a play that will continue to make you think and feel long after you’ve left the theatre.

The 2013-2014 season at Boston Playwright’s Theatre has been very inspiring, showcasing new work by local playwrights that ask and answer difficult questions.  Next, Boston Playwright’s Theatre will be coordinating the Boston Theatre Marathon in May.

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