note: entire contents copyright 2012 by Sheila Barth
“My play is metaphoric,” writer-director Wesley Savick told a large group at a post-show discussion of “Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M.,” appearing at Central Square Theater through May 13.
Savick’s play relates the story of H.M. - Henry Molaison - who underwent experimental brain surgery to alleviate convulsive epileptic seizures, but lost his ability to form new memories. Because of his “profound amnesia,” he couldn’t remember much of the past, either. He envisioned mental snapshots of occurrences without reference, excluding that he was born on 2-26-26. He also recalled a brief, half-hour plane ride with a pilot, which left a lasting impression on him. “That plane ride was the high point of my life,” he enthuses.
Research claims Molaison, an only child from East Hartford, Conn., sustained a head injury from a bike accident when he was 7 years old. As a teenager, he suffered from debilitating seizures and blackouts, so when Molaison was 27, Dr. William Beecher Scoville of Hartford Hospital performed experimental brain surgery on him.
Savick wanted to enlighten audiences about H.M.’s humanity, his willingness to help science and people, and his enormous contribution to the studies of the brain. Studying Molaison’s condition greatly advanced progress in treating Alzheimer’s disease, he said. And even though Molaison couldn’t remember what he did moments afterward, every time he repeated the same procedure, such as looking in a mirror and tracing a star on paper, his skills improved.
The story of H.M.(as he was identified by scientists) is fascinating without theatrical embellishment. Actor Barlow Adamson is compelling as Molaison, but Savick’s “metaphoric” production concentrates more on stage effects than the man. Before the play opens, talented pianist Tae Kim plays a stirring repertoire and musically accents key moments with composer-sound designer Tod Machover’s pieces.
Set designer Justin Townsend’s huge white box usurps the stage floor center, while a large background screen projects the New York Times’ front-page story of Molaison’s death in 2008 and other images.
Early on, as the box changes hues, Jeff Adelberg’s lights flicker and blink, while screams pierce the air. Suddenly, the box is lifted, suspended mid-air, and a silhouetted man dominates the stage. Wearing a bathrobe, H.M. addresses the audience, while getting dressed, rote-style. He’s the core of this lab-like universe. Scientists in white medical coats, one by one, confer about him, spinning him around. They repeat asking three questions, evoking the same responses. H.M. loves to do crossword puzzles, and has conversations with himself, he says. Savick also relates authentic descriptions of H.M.’s dreams.
Veteran actors Steven Barkhimer, Anna Kohler and Debra Wise flank the large screen, standing on ladders, while reporting their observations. The scientists are fond of Molaison, but show little emotion towards him. There’s no comfort, no love, no hug. He wouldn’t remember it anyway, they reason. Wise switches roles and costumes easily, from scientist to Henry’s former childhood neighbor.
Meanwhile,Henry is aging but doesn’t look it. Only his voice changes, becoming more wobbly. He also sings a plaintive song. Before Molaison died, he signed permission to use his brain post-mortem for future study. His death barely noted, scientists then took several MRIs, sliced his brain into 2,001 pieces, and shipped it to the University of California at San Diego.
Savick explained he structured the play to evoke rather than explain, fusing scientific record with his imagination. He avoided writing about Molaison’s parents, because he wanted to focus strictly on this kindly patient with above-average intelligence, whose ability to live independently was destroyed. Savick was surprised when a few theatergoers expressed their displeasure that he excluded Molaison’s family. They were Molaison’s cousins.
Savick made no apologies. He spent months researching and interviewing medical personnel involved in Molaison’s case and those who studied and benefited from him. He wanted to show Molaison’s humanity and humaneness. Instead, the man without a memory remains an enigma.
BOX INFO: World premiere of writer-director Wesley Savick’s one-act 90-minute play, appearing with Catalyst Collaborative@MIT, the science theater collaboration between Underground Railway Theater and MIT, through May 13 at Central Square Theater, 450 Mass. Ave., Cambridge. Performances are Wednesday, Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 3,8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m. Tickets:$45-$15; student, senior discounts; student rush, $20. Call 866-811-4111, visit the Box Office or CentralSquareTheater.org.