I’ve seen two plays about H.M., the globally-renowned American who endured a disastrous memory disorder for the rest of his life, after having an experimental, bilateral medial temporal lobectomy in 1957, to cure his convulsive epileptic seizures. Although H.M. was an intelligent young man with great hopes for his future, at 16 years old, his life changed radically. According to biographic information, he had an accident on his bicycle when he was 7 or 9 years old, that may have injured his brain, resulting in severe, worsening seizures.
When H.M. was 27 years old, Dr. William Beecher Scoville of Hartford Hospital recommended the young man undergo experimental brain surgery to alleviate his convulsive epileptic seizures. That worked, but as a byproduct, he lost his ability to form new memories, (he couldn’t even recognize himself in a mirror) and could never live independently again. He lived with his parents for years, then in a nursing home in Windsor Locks, Conn., and was carefully studied by doctors. He underwent various medical and neuroscientific tests, until he died. His brain was then sent to a lab at the Universiy of California, in San Diego, and cut into 2,401 pieces for further study.
Both plays - Vanda’s one-act, multimedia, “The Forgetting Curve,” currently appearing on the Wimberly Theatre stage, and writer-director Wesley Savick’s one-act 90-minute “Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M.” - are provocative and compelling.While Savick referred to his play as metaphoric, he provides marvelous biographic and scientific insight and a mirror into the life of Henry Gustav Molaison, whose identity wasn’t revealed until after his death, Dec. 2, 2008. While Savick included home movie footage, photographs, and a stirring portrayal of Molaison, (thanks to actor Barlow Adamson), Vanda traces Molaison’s family life, his losses, and his wish to help others,despite his frustrating existence. She tosses in a subplot of fictitious Dr. Laura Nebbens, who devotes her life to studying H.M., sacrificing her own happiness, but winning a lifetime achievement award for her neuroscientific efforts. Laura Darrell sensitively portrays young Dr. Nebbens, and accomplished actress Ann Talman is also outstanding as an older, wiser Dr. Nebbens.
Vanda diffuses and distracts from this commanding biography-based story by diffusing attention to fictional Dr. Nebbens’ lesbian affair with vivacious young actress, Claire (Jasmine Rush), whom she loses because of her devotion to studying and helping H.M.
According to real-life Prof. Suzanne Corkin, professor of behavioral neuroscience and head of MIT’s Corkin Lab, who worked with H.M. for 46 years, he helped reinvent neuroscience, which was a boon and provided doctors with increased information on studying and treating Alzheimer’s disease and other related conditions. She writes, “He was motivated by the fact the research on him would benefit other people, and it did, especially to not ever perform this operation again...”
Vanda’s play is set on an intimate, sterile-looking stage, with large video screens on both sides, and rectangular frames above, in which Eamonn Farrell creatively projects the action on stage, medical slides during fictitious Dr. Laura Nebbins’ lectures, fuzzy images, and more. Very few props are employed as the characters progress and change through the years.
Conor William Wright uncannily resembles file photos of H.M. as a teen-ager and young man, wearing a similar checkered shirt and glasses. Wright is delightful as the happy H.M. on his 16th birthday, cavorting with his girlfriend (nicely portrayed by Erin Eva Butcher), until he suddenly falls to the floor, violently convulsing. Wright vividly catapults himself and theatergoers through an emotional roller coaster, sharing his hopes and dreams, his love of life and nature, all shattered by increasingly debilitating epilepsy. Alexander Platt portrays three doctors who treat H.M. throughout his ordeal.
Joleen Wilkinson is convincing as H.M.’s long-suffering mother, while Thomas Kee captivates as H.M.’s frustrated father, and later as the placid H.M. in his middle years. Unfortunately, we don’t see enough of marvelous Boston actor Dale Place, who portrays H.M. in his later years.
BOX INFO:World premiere of Vanda’s one-act play, appearing with Bridge Rep of Boston and Theatrum Mundi Productions, in association with Alan Swanke, Cole Burden& Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company, through Sept. 27, on the Wimberly Theatre stage, Boston Center for the Arts, Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, 527 Tremont St., South End, Boston. Performances:Wednesday, Thursday, at 7:30 p.m., Friday, Saturday, 8 p.m.Tickets: $45, (additional $5.50 for tickets purchased online or by phone).Go to the Box Office, visit www.bostontheatrescene.com or call 917-633-8600.