As the Soviet Union slowly wakes from the nightmarish regime of Stalin, a government official interrogates a psychiatrist about a paper she submitted for publication regarding a patient of hers 20 years ago who had the gift — or curse — of total recall in D.W. Gregory’s play Memoirs of a Forgotten Man, an intriguing tale ably told by Washington Stage Guild through May 29 at the Undercroft.
Premiered at the Contemporary American Theatre Festival in 2018, Memoirs — based on a true story — is told in flashback; the framing scenes are set in 1957, as the Soviet Union tentatively and slowly adjusts to life after Stalin, while the main story unfolds between 1937–38.
A mural of Stalin’s enormous face dominates Joseph Musumeci Jr’s set, and his legacy looms large over the characters. The specter of the totalitarian surveillance state, and the lingering psychological scars it left, impact the meetings between the interrogator Kreplev and the psychiatrist Natalya: she is instinctively self-protective and mistrustful.
The subject of her research decades prior, a young man named Alexei, not only has the ability to recall events, perfectly reciting speeches heard once years earlier, even claiming to remember his own birth; he also has synesthesia, associating tactile sensations to words, or taste or colors with sounds. His brain is … wired differently.
The challenge for Alexei, a low-level journalist, is his guileless naiveté about how dangerous his abilities are to himself and his family in the midst of Stalin’s Great Purge, in a country where history is very malleable. He unwisely mentions disgraced and “disappeared” former leaders like Kirov and Bukharin, and the snowball starts to roll. Soon his family are under scrutiny, the busybody neighbors start getting nosier, and he feels the heavy hand of the Stalinist regime upon him. He is desperate for some kind of solution; how can a man who remembers everything learn to forget?
Director Kasi Campbell keeps what could be a very talky and static affair flowing. The cast switch back and forth between their various characters nimbly, we always know where we are and when, and the relatively spare set pieces — a desk, a table, and a few chairs — are used to great effect.
Steven Carpenter and Lynette Rathnam have an intriguing chemistry as Kreplev and Natalya, as likewise do Rathnam and Chris Stinson’s Alexei. Stinson maybe leans into the wide-eyed naif a bit too much, though his sweetness and simplicity draw us in. All four actors play multiple characters; Carpenter also ably doubles as Alexei’s increasingly frustrated older brother, Vasily. Rathnam also oozes sinister smarm as the nosy neighbor Demidova. WSG co-founder Laura Giannarelli creates a number of intriguing supporting characters, Alexei and Vasily’s widowed mother, as well as Alexei’s teacher and boss.
There’s a shock revelation that in retrospect is perhaps a bit obvious, though the final scene, a reunion 20 years in the making, does pack a significant emotional wallop. Ultimately, it’s a very timely play as the concept of a country going through its own sort of upheaval and looking to impose tight reins on what is taught as history is not so lost to the mists of time as we might want to think. Memoirs is a useful lesson on how history repeats, even when we attempt to repress it.
Running Time: Two hours, including one intermission.
Memoirs of a Forgotten Man plays through May 29, 2022, presented by Washington Stage Guild performing at the Undercroft Theatre inside the Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, 900 Massachusetts Ave NW, Washington, DC. For tickets ($50–$60), call (202) 900-8788 or purchase online.
COVID Safety: Masks are required at all times in the theater; proof of vaccination must be shown at the door. The Stage Guild’s complete Health and Safety Policy is here.
Memoirs of a Forgotten Man by D.W. Gregory, directed by Kasi Campbell, produced by Washington Stage Guild. Scenic Design: Joseph Musumeci Jr. Costumes: Sigrid Johannesdottir. Lighting: Marianne Meadows. Sound: Neil McFadden. Fight Choreography: Paul Hope. Stage Manager: Arthur Nordlie. Cast: Steven Carpenter (Kreplev, Vasily), Laura Giannarelli (Old Woman, Teacher, Mother, Utkina), Lynette Rathnam (Natalya, Demidova), Chris Stinson (Alexei, Azarov).