Jackob G. Hofmann’s play about trauma and fragmented memory premieres at Theatre Row.
Photo by Russ Roland
When young philanthropist David Huntington shows up in Uganda to interview a UNICEF employee about recent instances of violent "human elephant conflict," it is clear not everything is as it seems. Before long, we are spiraling through memories of the young man and his loved ones as he tries to piece together his family's traumatic history. If an elephant can never forget a death, why does David have so much trouble remembering them?
Jackob G. Hofmann's A Persistent Memory, directed by Jessi D. Hill, is a fragmented retelling of the stories we have the hardest time coming to terms with. A complex and respectful depiction of trauma and memory loss, the structure of the play is itself the story, reconstructing the narrative along with David as he speaks with an elephant rehabilitation expert, an old friend and his new flame and his soon-to-be stepmother about the mother and brother he can hardly remember losing.
This is an expertly structured piece; while out of order, the scenes make perfect sense in the sequence they are presented, while each jarring, evocative image—David's diary, blood on a rock, a lost violin—gains significance each time we encounter it. Each character in the play in fact has their own struggles with memory, from Olivia's alcoholism and Carly's drugged club adventure to Kasem's poor abused former circus eleplant, each subplot reflecting back on David's own mysterious tale. If anything, the characters in Hofmann's play are a little too overt about its leitmotif, trying to articulate a struggle with perception that the performance has already made clear.
A Persistent Memory gets off to a slow start, featuring several extended interview-style scenes early on that require the audience to keep track of named characters they have yet to meet or learn the significance of. But after a while, it is quite easy to fall under the spell of Drew Ledbetter's charming, troubled David and the friends he encounters. Victoria Vance (Olivia), Claire Warden (Carly) and Lisa Bostnar (Marie) are a fascinating ensemble of women who try and fail to connect with David, while Ariel Estrada's passionate elephant specialist Kasem and Richard Prioleau as old friend Elijah add intrigue to the mix.
What brings the whole piece together is a beautifully intricate lighting and sound design by Greg Solomon and Miles Polaski (respectively), capturing Uganda and Greenwich, CT all in one as the storm of David's conflicted emotions and memories finally breaks. The actors rarely leave the stage during the performance, instead remaining silhouettes in the background, haunting fragments of the young man's murky past. While the elephant motif could have been better incorporated into the overall story, the rest of the play forms a cohesive tale of love, loss and a struggle to understand the traumas of the past.
A Persistent Memory plays at Theatre Row's Beckett Theatre through June 18.
This article was previously published on CHARGED.fm.