Lee Haven-Jones, Vivien Parry,
and Simon Nehan in Memory
(© Manuel Harlan)
Lee Haven-Jones, Vivien Parry,
and Simon Nehan in Memory
(© Manuel Harlan)
Welsh playwright Jonathan Lichtenstein, whose father escaped Nazi Germany on the Kindertransport, has obviously lived with onerous cross-generational memories for some time. He's been traumatized profoundly enough by what he's learned to be emphatically moved to write Memory, a multi-layered work in which he ruminates on the nature of the elusive subject. Now being presented as part of the Brits Off Broadway festival at 59E59, Lichtenstein's aching and complex piece is well worth seeing.

As Lichtenstein triple-plots it in this 90-minute work, six actors and their director (played by Christian McKay) are rehearsing a two-part play-within-a-play. One of the interspersed sequences tells the story -- in two different time periods -- of Eva (Vivien Parry), Aron (Simon Nehan), Felix (Daniel Hawksford), and Peter (Lee Haven-Jones), Eva and Aron's grandson. In the 1930s Aron, who marries Eva, and Felix, who covets her, open a shoe business that rewards them handsomely until Third Reich developments force the Jewish Aron to sell his half of the firm to the Aryan Felix.

In 1990, just after the Berlin Wall has fallen, Peter visits Eva to discover why she remains estranged from the family and what has happened to two boys he's always heard she saved during the Nazi onslaught. Finally, Eva's tale alternates with scenes set during 2006 in which Israeli soldier Isaac (Oliver Ryan) deals with Palestinian husband and father Bashar (Ifan Huw Dafydd), whose home is to be demolished because it's on land the government is appropriating to build a dividing wall.

A cross between William Styron's novel Sophie's Choice and Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall," Memory braids its hard-bitten stories to serve Lichtenstein's belief that memory is tied to the past by definition but is also resolutely of the present. Looking back, the reclusive 78-year-old Eva is imprisoned by unavoidable memories of her behavior when she and Aron wanted to flee Germany but couldn't. She's also obsessed by recollections of her responsibility to the two youngsters whom she sheltered after she sent her own son away.

As Lichtenstein unfolds his interlocking narratives in a rigorous enterprise that blends the intellectual and the visceral, he also grapples with the troublesome potential for memory to be conveniently selective. This aspect of his scrutiny explains the relevance to Eva's dilemma of the 2006 incidents involving Isaac and Bashar. Although the events initially appear unrelated, Lichtenstein carefully inserts in both accounts the revelation that horrific actions take place under orders.

Why Lichtenstein feels obligated to set his two dramatic flashbacks within the context of a play rehearsal is far less immediately explained. Plays about actors preparing a play are both a threadbare cliche and usually unbearably pretentious. Of what possible interest is it that one of the troupe needs to leave every so often to feed a parking meter?

Yet, Lichtenstein redeems himself to a large degree. Not only do plays depend on actors' memories, but the depiction of actors instantaneously disappearing into these roles to such unsparing effect becomes a nod of gratitude to dedicated practitioners. Moreover, the recognition that theater is an important repository for sometimes glad and sometimes sad memories is pertinent. Lichtenstein's drama is a memory play in the most literal sense.

Under Terry Hands' compassionate but unflinching direction, the ensemble is uniformly expert. Parry has the most challenging assignment; because playwright Lichtenstein shuffles periods loosely, she has repeatedly to be the old and bitter Eva, then the young and in love Eva. She makes quick yet somber work of her challenging duties.