Memories are having a moment off-Broadway: are they anvils that hold us down or tickets to liberation? Earlier this spring, Ensemble Studio Theatre mounted Sam Chanse’s quietly mesmerizing “what you are now,” in which Pia, a neuroscience student explores the link between memory and fear. The play, which is being streamed for free until September 25, impressively integrates scientific discussions about the formation of short and long-term memories with one family’s reckoning with the legacy of the Cambodian genocide. More recently, Theatre for a New Audience offered its own historically-grounded memory play. Originally created and performed at The Laboratory for Global Performance and Politics at Georgetown University and running until Oct. 9, Remember This: The Lesson of Jan Karski is a one-man play starring David Strathairn as Karski, a Polish resistance fighter who conveyed eyewitness accounts of the Warsaw Ghetto and Nazi extermination camp during World War II to the Allied Nations–only to have his appeals on behalf of the Jewish people rebuffed by the British Foreign Secretary and President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
A third entrant in this mixture of memory plays is “The Memory Exam,” in which characters are at risk of not remembering too much, but of forgetting. Produced by Oberon Theatre Ensemble, the play unfolds in a not-so-distant Hobbesian future, when senior citizens who show signs of forgetfulness are reported to The Public Health and Wellness Bureau (PHAWB) by strangers, friends, and acquaintances. As Dale, a psychotherapist played by Vernice Miller, tells the other characters, “one slip can be enough,” even for seemingly trivial things like blanking on the name of a president or their own phone number. Those exhibiting memory lapses are then subjected to the titular exam, which most do not pass. Some older couples prone to forgetting have started committed committing suicide together. “They call it doing the ‘R and J’—short for Romeo and Juliet,” one character wryly reflects.
In a playwright’s note tucked into the program, we learn that the pandemic directly inspired Steven Fechter’s play. “During the shutdown, when some politicians suggested that seniors should be willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of the economy, I realized that the stakes in my play had to be higher […] the playʼs dystopian world reflects the world I feared we were heading toward.” First as tragedy, then as farce. Even as farce, though, what seems like an interesting premise often falls short on delivery. As much as Fechter and Director Terrence O’Brien would have us believe we’d wormholed into a “dystopia,” for the 80 minutes of the play, we are only ever hurtling toward such a fearsome world, which remains at a misty remove. As such, we’re never jolted into feeling that the stakes are much more than academic.
When the play opens, we hear the faint sound of roosters crowing in the background and see, on an upstage wall, the silhouette of trees with finger-like branches pointing accusatorily at each other (Tamara Honesty did the scenic design). A group of three has gathered around a huge, albeit unconvincing rock to learn from Dale how to pass the memory exam, which is approaching in a few short days. The upshot is that this secret clearing in the woods is free from surveillance cameras and would-be snitches; the downside is that there are no facilities within spitting distance, though Dale has thoughtfully brought along a roll of toilet paper. After collecting a fee from Jen (Bekka Lindström), her husband Hank (Alfred Gingold), and Tom (Gus Kaikkonen), Dale explains that the test is deceptively simple: administrators will show them five objects to remember. The catch is that they must rename the five objects after being distracted by several other questions; if they fail to remember even one object, they die.
To help the septuagenarians improve their chances of recall, Dale has them practice by embedding five objects in a strong, lightly edited memory. Tom, Jen, and Hank each take turns sharing their stories with the group, incorporating the objects—one involves an affair with a student, another an outré meeting with angels. Yet the more that Dale explained her coaching strategy, the more dubious I became. Does Dale have an ulterior motive in hearing these people’s stories? Could she be an undercover agent from the Bureau? Even if her mnemonic works, it seems unrealistic to expect each of the septuagenarians to come up with a vivid story while simultaneously parrying questions from the instructor meant to waylay them. Some of the characters are also suspicious of Dale—at least in the beginning. Dale begins to build trust with them by telling them she got involved in efforts to help seniors pass the exam after her husband—a “typical absent-minded professor”—received a summons from the Bureau and was never heard from again. Since then, she’s been stealthily running a one-woman bootcamp to help people ace the exam, which involves tracking down people who passed and learning as much about the test as she could.
If the seniors sometimes have trouble remembering to bring along cash, their ability to recall snippets of “Hamlet,” Emily Dickinson’s poems, and psalms from the Bible is not similarly stymied. It is in these moments that the play strains for credulity. While it makes sense that Tom, a former English professor, would be able to quote from “Hamlet” and Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” when Jen and Hank chime in with lyrical passages about memory, they begin to sound like mouthpieces. Squint and you can almost believe the trio are professors lounging around after a departmental meeting. The sense of urgency picks up in the second scene, one week after the group first meets. Dale waits in the same designated spot in the woods to see if Hank, Tom, or Jen show up: if none do, she’ll know none of them passed the exam. When one of them does show up—I’ll not say who—the play starts feeling its oats. The question, formerly posed by Dale, of what the characters value more—their privacy or their life—begins to seem much less abstract. Given another 20 minutes or so, the play could have taken an interesting turn, built upon the sense that suddenly everything was up for grabs. Instead, all we get is a not-entirely-believable, last-minute switcheroo that sputters to an anticlimactic denouement. Despite its title, “The Memory Exam” seems to have been steered less by some governors’ callous remarks about reviving the economy by sacrificing senior citizens than about that other much-abused value of the Trump era: trust among members of a commonwealth.