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Forever

Dael Orlandersmith's homage to the roots of artistic inspiration falls short.

Playwright and performer Dael Orlandersmith in the world premiere of Forever, directed by Neel Keller, at the Kirk Douglas Theatre.
(© Craig Schwartz)

For a work that begins and ends in a cemetery and whose author wants to connect with the living and the dead, Dael Orlandersmith's play Forever could be a lot more haunting. Directed by Neel Keller and presented at the Kirk Douglas Theatre as part of Center Theater Group's DouglasPlus experimental lineup, Forever, a take-no-prisoners one woman show, is still trying to find its collective footing.

Orlandersmith, who has written several solo plays, treads the jagged edge of memory, although the memories being shared here are anything but nostalgic. Early on, she throws a scratchy version of The Doors' "Light My Fire" onto a phonograph. The song, she confides, is one of her favorites. Fittingly, Orlandersmith then spends a substantial portion of the ensuing 90 minutes trying to burn the place down. It's not quite there though, making Forever more glowing embers than scorched earth.

The de facto star of Forever is not Orlandersmith, but Beula, the parent in whose home Orlandersmith grew up, and the woman who exerted a damaging and narcissistic hold that young Dael took years to sever. The play is dedicated to Beula's memory — a tribute not without irony given the person we're about to meet. Orlandersmith presents her mother's alcoholism almost as an afterthought, but the more she fills in the picture, the more horrifying the characterization becomes. Orlandersmith tries to grab you with the force of her tale, and frequently, she is successful. An incident from the author's early teen years — only peripherally involving her mother — is unrelenting, although Orlandersmith deftly weaves in a dollop of humor over the crush she develops on a kindly Irish cop.

With Forever, the playwright attempts to explore the people who introduced her to a life and appreciation of art, but Keller and Orlandersmith have not brought the tale or its journey into full focus. The piece also has signs of roughness. Clutching a leather-bound notebook, which might be a script, Orlandersmith tripped over her lines several times. She is nonetheless a performer as much at home on the stage as on the page. Dressed in a long, diaphanous black dress over big clunky work boots, she projects an aura of welcoming rather than of rage or defiance. Even in her most cathartic moments she is every bit the good host.

Takeshi Kata's set plays up the focus of the story rather than the trimmings, with a raised wooden platform that is roomy and bare, and a couple of tables. A strip of wooden planking circling the theater's outer wall is decorated with photographs large and small depicting people who have played influential roles in the author's life. At one point, a photograph of Orlandersmith's mother, Beula Brown, is illuminated, but the photo is not large, well-situated, or easily viewed (except at the play's end when audiences are invited to approach the photo wall and take a closer look).

Forever ends where it begins — in Paris's Père Lachaise Cemetery with the playwright seeking out unspoken personal connections with fellow gravesite visitors whom she has never met. Fair enough, but those strangers are far less interesting than the lady who has brought us to this place to light a candle for Jim Morrison, Richard Wright, Arthur Rimbaud, and the twin spirits of creativity and persistence.

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