Uncertain remembrance of things past

THEATER CRITIC THEATER

August 13, 1993|By J WYNN ROUSUCK

"Camera Obscura"

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays; through Aug. 22

Where: AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road

Tickets: $8 and $9

Call: (410) 243-5237

*** "What I remember didn't happen, and what happened, I don't remember," says the protagonist in K. Siobhan Wright's "Camera Obscura," AXIS Theatre's second production in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival.

The reliability of memory -- particularly childhood memory -- is one of the more intriguing issues in this domestic drama, which is set during the emotionally charged Christmas season.

Beth Ascher, a photographer, shares an apartment with her younger sister, Jennifer, a college student. Ever since their parents' divorce more than a decade ago, the sisters have celebrated Christmas with their father and stepmother. But Beth has decided this Christmas will be different. Over her sister's protests, she has schemed to bring her parents together for what she envisions as a traditional family holiday.

However, this is hardly a traditional family. Beth hasn't seen her older brother since the custody battle when she and Jennifer went to live with their father and he ended up with their mother. In fact, no one in the family has seen him for at least two years. But lately Beth has begun to suspect her brother is following her; he may even be spying on her from the building next door.

Nor is her brother's disappearance the only Ascher family mystery. There's also a mystery surrounding a hidden attic room in the house where the children spent their early years. And though it seems minor at first, there's the mother's mysterious habit of never removing her elbow-length gloves.

Secrets in the attic; a mother who refuses to dirty her hands; even the name "Ascher," which can refer to either destruction or Phoenix-like resurrection. As these examples suggest, Wright, a member of the English faculty at Carroll Community College, doesn't exactly shy away from overt symbolism.

As to the broader subject matter, though dysfunctional families may seem tiresome, they have been a mainstay of American drama at least since the days of O'Neill. And, Wright provides an updated take on this subject by including the current hot topic of the accuracy and selectivity of memory. For instance, though Beth has taken numerous photographs of her mother over the years, she's never noticed that her mother is wearing gloves in each and every picture.

When Jennifer points this out, Beth begins to realize her naive little sister may not be so naive after all -- a realization that is hammered home by the play's final, awful revelation.

Under Miriam Bazensky's direction, Jennifer Brown and Joy Schiebel, as Beth and Jennifer, often appear to be trying too hard -- especially in their repeated squabbles. Similarly, as their hoity-toity mother, Bethany Brown puts on a few too many airs. But that's the kind of play this is. To get what she wants, the older sister is supposed to be pushy, and her mother is supposed to pretend to be better than she is.

The only character allowed to convey a sense of calm is the father, who made a deliberate decision to escape the hysteria of his first marriage. But interestingly, as portrayed by Peter Wilkes, the father is so tranquil he seems tranquilized; it's not surprising that he occasionally longs for the excitement of his former life.

"Camera Obscura" raises the very real question of what is ultimately more damaging -- trying to protect a loved one from the truth, or the truth itself. While other aspects of her writing might benefit from more subtlety, the playwright deserves credit for not answering these central questions. Instead, she opts for the haunting solution of letting the audience mull over the eerie consequences of both.

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