nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
September 28, 2009
Branislav Tomich's one-man play is called Blue Lanterns. "Blue Lanterns" was the nickname that his father called his mother for her blue eyes—full of light, warmth, and love. At its strongest, Blue Lanterns is a beautiful tribute to his mother, his family, and his childhood. Perhaps better said, it is a love letter to the person who taught him the most about love. Blue Lanterns is also his difficult journey of trying to reconcile the goodness of his memories with the badness of his mother's dementia and death. As theatre, Blue Lanterns misses opportunities in some ways and beautifully exceeds potential in others.
Chances are that if you find yourself interested in a play that deals with the gut-wrenching side of aging, you are looking for catharsis. In this aspect Tomich delivers powerfully. He opens the play with an absurd conversation on the phone with his mother, trying to ask her a simple question about cooking beans and she obviously can't connect the word with the food as he patiently repeats the word "beans," again and again in different ways. He talks about the burnt pots and pans she'd hide from her kids, how a good conversation was one in which she remembered his name, how hard it was to broach the subject of a nursing home... If you have any point of reference at all for experiences of this nature, you will find yourself laughing, crying, and nodding a lot in recognition as I did. He struggled with the integrity of dealing with his mother in her demented state in the present, not grieving for all that she had lost or jumping ahead to the even sadder conclusion to come. He tried to simply, wisely, patiently love her for who she was in the moments that he had with her. The painful experiences are bookended always with good memories. We learn about the amazing things she cooked, how supportive she had been of his life choices, how happy and safe her love made him as a child. Furthermore Tomich eloquently puts into words a lot of the crazy feelings of rage, fear, uncertainty, unfairness, anger, etc., that you go through when you have to watch someone you love lose mental capacity and deteriorate. It's really beautiful, thoughtful stuff.
But I felt like it could have been even more effective. Stage Left Studio is a TINY, intimate theatre with seating for only 16 people. Yet I found that Tomich and director Sydnie Grosberg Ronga had not determined what Tomich's relationship to the audience was or figured our presence much at all into why he said what he said. Usually in a one-person-play, the audience acts as the performer's scene partner, which is a huge opportunity that was missed here. Above the simple set (like a sparse living room) there is a photo collage of what I assume are his own real family photos. While its presence seems to feed his acting, he sometimes oddly turns away from the audience to address his family in the photos. At these times I felt like I was intruding somewhere private where I was not welcome. He also often puts the imaginary characters that he addresses off to the sides of the stage or above the audience's heads, talking to them and not us. There we were: 16 strangers, sniffling back our snotty tears, chuckling and begging to engage, and often I felt like the play wasn't even for us. At times it felt like Tomich was giving a sermon or reading an essay (albeit a wise one) about love and mortality. Maybe Blue Lanterns is really a prayer to his mother and we were just called there to witness it.
To be fair, he addresses this himself. He admits that he's not sure why he needed to share this with an audience, which I think is a key question that he needs to answer in order to completely knock out of the park his otherwise wonderful, heartwrenching material. Yet even if the real audience for him is his mother's spirit as he delivers this play up as his gift, it's still a rare and beautiful gift—well worth it to behold.
[Editor's Note: Stage Left Studio actually has seating for 35 people; theatre operator Cheryl King notes "since the seats are not fixed, we usually set up about 5 seats more than the expected audience, so that the room does not feel half empty."]