In his play "Tuesday," Baltimore native Paul Mullin provides a memorable look at forgetfulness.
That might sound like a contradiction in terms, but Mullin -- who is now based in Seattle, where he has made a career as a playwright and screenwriter -- makes this unusual subject not only intriguing, but theatrical as well.
At AXIS Theatre, these qualities come through despite a production that, due in part to the subject matter and in part to numerous scene changes, is at times laboriously slow.
Mullin took his inspiration for "Tuesday" from an essay in Oliver Sacks' "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," about a type of memory loss called Korsakoff's syndrome.
In "Tuesday," the Korsakoff's patient is a middle-aged man named Audie, who, as played by Jeff Roberts, is generally extremely cheerful. That may seem surprising for someone who faces the repeated frustration of waking up each day with no memory of what happened the day before. But as Sacks' essay indicates, the patient literally doesn't know what he's missing.
To attempt to restore Audie's memory, a trio of medical personnel (Anthony T. Reda, Gina S. Braden and Mary Ann Walsh) ask him to act out scripts of his real life. These skits enhance the play's inherent theatricality.
As the scripts reveal more and more of Audie's past, it becomes clear that he is not the pleasant, likable guy he appears to be. Indeed, another part of his daily routine is given over to a police interrogation about a car accident in which a drunken Audie is believed to have killed a child.
The more we know about Audie -- a chronic alcoholic whose obsession with making money warped his relationships with his children and his ex-wives -- the easier it is to understand how he might, willingly or unwillingly, want to wipe out his own memory.
But what determines who we are? Surely background and behavior are major factors. If Audie recovers his memory, he might have a chance to make up for -- or at least assume responsibility for -- some of his past mistakes. After all, even Korsakoff's syndrome cannot wipe away these mistakes, as if they never occurred.
In the theater, actors create characters by examining their motivations and, often, by building biographies or histories for them. That process is what we see Audie undergoing on stage, although he doesn't recognize his biography.
Despite the production's slow pace, the actors, who also include Bethany Hoffman and who all play multiple roles, attack the play with a kind of fun-house fervor -- part comic and part spooky. (Roberts, however, never loses enough cheer to portray effectively the venal creep Audie is supposed to have been before his memory loss.)
Accentuating the play's black humor, director Raine Bode has the actors perform gleeful little dance steps between scenes; but even this sprightliness fails to compensate for the repetitiveness of the script. To a degree, this is Mullin's point, i.e., repetitiveness is a facet of Audie's treatment. But once that point is made, it's time to move on.
Such shortcomings, however, cannot obscure the fact that Mullin is a talented writer who is drawn to challenging material. AXIS' production is the hometown debut of this Dulaney Valley High School and University of Maryland alum, and it's a welcome introduction to his work.
Where: AXIS Theatre, 3600 Clipper Mill Road
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; through Saturday
Tickets: $10 and $14
Pub Date: 4/06/98