Memory and history collide in Gary Winter’s At Said, an intriguing new play about the power of words to make sense of the past. Sybil (Anita Hollander) and her adult daughter Darra (Lia Aprile) live in a run-down tenement in an urban area where neither buses nor subway trains stop. They receive a monthly check, presumably welfare or unemployment, but neither woman works. Darra claims it’s the distance she’d have to travel that keeps her at home, in addition to the fact that you need computer skills to get a job these days and she is completely inept in that area.
Their miserable existence changes when Darra’s drug-pushing boyfriend Will (Vedant Gokhale) brings them a typewriter, which prompts Sybil to begin writing her autobiography. As she types out stories of the town in which she once lived, it becomes increasingly clear that she has endured horrific events under an unnamed, oppressive regime. Sybil refers to bridges being blown up, a butcher with dynamite, and burying numerous bodies in a forest. Yet she also has other, more pleasant memories, like that of a beautiful waterfall in the center of town. “There’s no order,” she says, remarking on the randomness of her thoughts; then she realizes that what she lived through also had no order, and that perhaps this is the best way to put her story down on paper.
The ensemble cast members all deliver strong performances. Hollander has a sweet, upbeat energy that provides a startling contrast to her tales of dead bodies and harsh living conditions. Aprile is appropriately more lethargic but manages to make her character more sympathetic than pathetic. Gokhale captures the volatile Will, who can seem friendly one moment and turn violent the next. The vibrant Marisa Echeverria plays Alex Marbles, Darra’s best friend and neighbor. Rounding out the cast is the absolutely terrific Gilbert Cruz, who plays the building’s super Mr. Carlos. Like Sybil, Carlos grew up under a repressive government. He is wary of Sybil’s attempts to put her thoughts down on paper, as he suffered the consequences for things that he once wrote.
Winter never specifies the locales of any of his characters’ traumas, although Hollander speaks Sybil’s lines in a vaguely Eastern European accent and Mr. Carlos most likely comes from Cuba. Under Tim Farrell’s direction, the performance is somewhat stylized, with actors occasionally striking odd poses to emphasize certain lines. And, for some unfathomable reason, Sybil loses a leg at some point between the first scene and her next appearance; there are no references to this in the dialogue, and the other characters behave as if nothing unusual has occurred. The intermissionless hour-and-45-minute show occasionally drags but, for the most part, holds the audience’s attention.
Sue Rees’s set design is fairly basic, consisting of some worn furniture and a small, pink wading pool that the characters exclaim over as if it was something in which you could actually swim. Andrew Hill’s lighting includes low hanging bulbs that glow brightly during several of the scene changes, creating an eerie effect that’s reinforced by Jody Elff’s equally surreal sound design.
Winter’s tale is filled with existential angst but is grounded in the very real emotions of its characters. The author, who belongs to the playwriting collective 13P, shows tremendous promise; I look forward to seeing more of his work.