nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
July 16, 2008
Claire is a mother, and Claire is a daughter. Like so many of us, she sits in between...EVERYTHING, or so it often seems.
Claire's daughter, a smart and resilient young teen named Rose, needs help with an assignment from school. When did women get the right to vote, she asks? When did women get the right to choose?
Claire's mother, Ann, smart but nowhere near as resilient as she used to be (she's in the early stages of Alzheimer's), lives in a nursing home; by the time the play has ended, she is confined (literally) to a wheelchair. She needs things too, most pressingly a pair of black socks.
Claire attends to mother and daughter...but Claire has work to do. Important work to do. Claire is us; and the pressing nature of the present—which never goes away and always needs attending to—is keeping her from attending to the future and the past.
TRACES/fades is about Claire, and by extension pretty much all the grown-up-but-not-yet-retired people in America. But one of the singular qualities of this extraordinary new theatre piece by Lenora Champagne—premiering at Soho Think Tank's invaluable Ice Factory festival—is that though Claire may be the protagonist of this play she's not its leading character, not at all. Most of the story unfolds in the nursing home where Ann now lives; Champagne and her collaborators capture the sad and vaguely surreal ambience of that place with uncanny and affecting fidelity. We meet Ann's fellow residents: Harry, who was in a long-ago war, uses a walker to get around. Hilda, in a formless blue dress, is exuberant but her attention span isn't what it once was. Dolores, irascible and a little bit hunched over, excels at her word association test but fails the history/memory test.
Dolores is not alone: haven't we all failed the history/memory test? One of the recurring motifs of TRACES/fades is War: the ones we've been involved with during the lifetimes of Harry, Hilda, Dolores, and Ann. What do we collectively remember about the American experiences of War? What have we apparently forgotten?
As we move the only way we can, i.e., inexorably forward, what have we, as a society and a culture and a polity, lost?
Nettie, the overworked attendant/nurse at the nursing home, has a brief but stirring digression about how her daughter isn't learning cursive writing at school, and what aspects of communication are denied her as a result. This is the way TRACES/fades constantly operates, with threads and snippets of ideas and themes fluttering by us ephemerally, sometimes in orderly narrative scenes and sometimes surprisingly as songs or in movement—just as the title suggests.
Champagne, with co-director Robert Lyons, composer/sound designers Daniel Levy and Lisa Dove, lighting designer Stacey-Jo Marine, and costume/curtain designer Liz Prince, weaves the whole thing together nonetheless into a tapestry that taps our deepest emotions, our collective and possibly guilt-ridden psyche. The center cannot hold, and the past we've forgotten and the future we've failed to properly plan for threaten to collapse on top of us.
The production is stunning, and blessed with a wondrous cast. Champagne herself plays Claire, beautifully, and Amelie Champagne Lyons (her daughter) is a breath of fresh air as Rose. Quanda Johnson imbues Nettie with tenderness and a backbone; she's no archetypal Nurse Ratched, but rather as fully-formed and sympathetic (and busy!) a character as Claire herself.
The senior actors in the show are terrific. Joanne Jacobson lets us inside Ann's sometimes lucid, sometimes confused mind with astonishing clarity. Mary Fogarty (Delores), Matthew Lewis (Harry), and Judith Greentree (Hilda) remind us that the older folks in our lives who are so easy to take for granted and/or patronizingly "manage" deserve neither treatment, not ever.
When TRACES/fades was done, I looked at my watch and was astonished that so much had happened in only about an hour; that's how dense and full this play is. And I recognized that I had been moved by it—authentically, to somewhere I'd not been before.
Only a few will be lucky enough to see this piece at Ice Factory this week. May it have long life afterward.