Presented by Bridge Repertory Theatre & Theatrum Mundi Productions
in association with Alan Swanke, Cole Burden & Playhouse Creatures Theatre Co.
Information resourced from Memory’s Ghost: The Nature of Memory and the Strange Tale of Mr. M, by Phillip J. Hilts
Directed by Kimerly Loren Eaton
Review by Kitty Drexel
Trigger Warnings: vintage sexism, reenactment of seizures/chronic illness, sweet lesbian love
(Boston, MA) The Forgetting Curve is about a family whose trust is abused by doctors. Patient HM (Henry Gustav Molaison, Feb. 26, 1926 – Dec. 2, 2008) suffered seizures as a teenager. To stop his otherwise untreatable epilepsy, surgeons removed the anterior two thirds of his hippocampi and other areas of his brain. At the time, doctors were unaware that, by removing his hippocampi, HM would essentially be incapable of retaining new memories. They turned HM into a high school educated goldfish with their experiments.
This play approaches the scientific study of American Patient HM from the perspectives of both Dr. Laura Nebbens (Ann Talman) and HM. She is a fictional doctor of neuropsychology who earns a lifetime achievement award for working with HM. She meets HM when his family brings him to the hospital where she studies. Their stories merge as HM comes to grips with his fate, and a young Dr. Nebbens (Laura Darrell) attempts to find meaning behind his sacrifice. The plot is delivered through dreamscape TV monitors, personal memory vignettes, and dance-like interludes.
As with all of Bridge Rep’s productions, the acting is exceptional. The roles of Dr. Nebbens (Talman and Darrell) and HM (Conor William Wright, Thomas Kee, Dale Place) are divided between two and three actors, respectively. The clean staging Kimberly Loren Eaton allows the audience to follow the frequent transitions between actors easily. The talents of the actors make the transitions believable.
Wright’s recreation of a seizure attack is shockingly accurate. It is so accurate as to raise alarm in an unprepared audience. His commitment to a boy/man living with a chronic illness while attempting to navigate young adulthood without any promise of a normal life is commendable. Wright gives a heart breaking performance that is accented by the work of co-actors Kee and Place. Theirs is tight knit ensemble.
Jasmine Rush gives lyrical depth to the role of Claire. This minor character cannot lean on exposed drama like the other roles in the production so she must be self-reliant for character development. She does so with aplomb and charisma.
Alexander Platt plays several deeply insensitive doctors with acute accuracy. Were it not for his charmingly anxious opening speech asking the audience to silence their phones at the opening of the performance, one might think he really was devoid of compassion. Thank heavens he’s just a good actor.
TFC asks its audience if memories are real. The better, more ethical question might be: Are the gains of science worth the sacrifices of human life? For example, the scientific experiments conducted on the prisoners of Nazi concentration camps are the basis for much research in the international medical field. How do we rationalize the pain and persecution of a relative some against the potential healing of many? TFC asks its audience what a human life is worth when scientists strip it of its humanity.
As a person who spent the first few years of her life frequenting hospitals as often as she did daycare, I had a difficult time sitting through The Forgetting Curve. This production’s perfect capturing of patient HM’s experiences brought back painful memories which I had nearly forgotten. I will not burden you with personal details but let’s say that mine was not a pleasant experience. If the goal of theatre is to rend an emotional reaction from its audience, this production has succeeded. I was still able to appreciate the performance. Those with fresh pain are advised to skip this one.