Two Imprisoned Women Cling to Their Memories in No One Is Forgotten
Winter Miller's terrifying two-hander makes its world premiere.
Lali and Beng occupy a concrete cell no larger than 6 feet by 10 feet. The only features of that cell are a bucket (which serves as a makeshift toilet) and a small window with a sliding door through which food and water occasionally appear. We know nothing about the circumstances of their captivity, or how long they've been there — but we get to know each woman with uncomfortable intimacy in Winter Miller's No One Is Forgotten, now making its harrowing world premiere at Rattlestick Playwrights Theater under the banner of Winter Miller's Community Theater.
The remarkably cheerful Beng (Renata Friedman) beats back the darkness of her imprisonment with a brilliant imagination, transporting herself and Lali out of their cell with just the power of her words and mind's eye. Lali (Sarah Nina Hayon) is less fanciful, but perhaps more fortified. While she's as charmed by Beng as we are, she sometimes just wants her to shut up. The two pass the time by stretching, playing word games, and speculating on the toxicity of their food. At one point, they even devise eulogies for each another, parsing the meaning of their existence up to this miserable point. They're like involuntary medieval anchoresses, sequestered in deep contemplation entirely against their will.
Such existential two-handers are not a new invention: Samuel Beckett carved an entire theatrical career out of them (Beng often feels like a more clear-eyed version of Winnie from Happy Days). Miller contributes to that tradition, but her set-up feels far more grounded in reality. When millions of people are held as slaves and prisoners in 2019, we can actually imagine how these two women ended up in this concrete box. And since Miller cleverly never reveals those specifics, we're left to fill in the blank with the most horrific possible explanation (horror is more about what is hidden than what is seen).
A note in the script reveals that the play can be tailored for two men, or a man and a woman, casting that would almost certainly color our assumptions without changing the emotional thrust of the story. No One Is Forgotten is one of those plays that manages to be universal by asking the performers to bring as much of themselves as possible to the stage.
Both Friedman and Hayon rise to the task with clear, specific, and heartbreakingly vulnerable performances. Friedman brings a nerdy quality to Beng, a character who "knows a lot about a lot." It's hard to imagine anyone could get bored around such inexhaustible curiosity. And yet, Lali does: Hayon endows her with a fighting spirit and a will to survive. She sees things as they are, and she doesn't always have patience for Beng's whimsical escapism. In their relationship, we see a microcosm of Western society, in which sober rationalists have a love-hate relationship with romantic dreamers. The two groups drive each other crazy, but they would absolutely collapse if left in solitary confinement.
Miller (who also directs) presents this story of extreme codependence in short scenes, some without any lines. We discern the passage of time with each crackling blackout (the low-watt illumination of Stacey Derosier's lighting design is both depressing and vital). We surround the playing space, reinforcing the cutaway walls of Meredith Ries's authentically dingy scenic design. Sound designer Tyler Kieffer tantalizes us with outside noises that help us to imagine who and what is beyond those rust-stained walls. Rhys Roffey costumes the actors in dirty cotton shifts that the characters inventively transform into an entire wardrobe. Do they really have any other option but to improvise?
With no screens to occupy the endless expanse of time, Beng and Lali are left with their bodies and words. Over the course of 90 minutes, we witness their theater of desperation as they try to conjure their fading memories of life outside. No One Is Forgotten is a wrenching tale of the human capacity for cruelty, but also the will to persevere.