Review: In ‘What You Are Now,’ Memory Is a Dangerous Thing

Evaluation: In ‘What You Are Now,’ Reminiscence Is a Harmful Factor

Attempting to grasp our mother and father’ previous lives can really feel like fumbling by means of the darkish, particularly for the kids of immigrants. Recollections are selective, and many individuals have lived by means of issues they’d quite neglect. The problem — and heartbreak — of bridging that chasm is the topic of “What You Are Now,” an affecting examine of reminiscence and migration by the playwright Sam Chanse that opened on Thursday evening on the Ensemble Studio Theater in Manhattan.

Pia (Pisay Pao) is aware of hardly something about her mom’s expertise fleeing Cambodia in 1975, amid the nation’s lethal takeover by the Khmer Rouge. However the ache of her mom’s expertise has formed Pia’s life, like an imprint, she says, seared into her cells. It’s why Pia is pursuing neurological analysis, on the lookout for a scientific resolution to her mom’s psychological struggling.

Pia’s mom (Sonnie Brown) carries herself like a ghost, trying misplaced behind the eyes and staunchly resisting any reminders of Cambodia. She’s additionally held herself at arm’s size from Pia and her brother Darany (Robert Lee Leng), whom she raised on her personal in small-town Massachusetts. (The peak of their mom’s bodily affection is a stiff-elbowed pat on the shoulder.) If Pia can’t enter or soothe her mom’s thoughts, she channels that want into learning the mind.

Chanse’s play shifts backwards and forwards over a 10-year span in Pia’s examine of reminiscence and its potential for manipulation. When she speaks to her mother on the telephone from the lab, their conversations are restricted to the mundane, like what’s for dinner and the way Pia’s profession is advancing. However when Darany’s ex-girlfriend (Emma Kikue) comes round gathering testimony for a nonprofit from survivors of the Khmer Rouge, Pia’s mom refuses to open up in regards to the previous.

“What You Are Now” isn’t propelled by incidents or dramatic motion, however concepts about how the thoughts works and the gradual revelation of non-public histories. Pia dates and breaks up with a co-worker (Curran Connor) with whom she cleans rat cages. Darany and his girlfriend, who’s half white, smoke pot and swap tales of how they relate to their shared Cambodian heritage. Pia’s mother loses her mood when she walks in on her youngsters dancing to Cambodian rock.

As Pia, Pao is spiky and guarded, observing and responding to her mom’s habits with the cool take away {that a} scientist would possibly hold for her topic. As her chill (and means cooler) older brother, Leng makes for a free and grounded distinction, all street-slang and curious coronary heart. And Brown is quietly arresting as a girl each fragile and imperious, slouched like a comma however with a will of metal.

Directed by the Civilians creative director, Steve Cosson, the neatly minimal manufacturing unfolds in opposition to a cool-gray monochrome inside, like a slate cleaned. Frames that may show household portraits hold empty, and what could possibly be a wall clock has no markings of time (the set design is by Riw Rakkulchon). Characters seem remoted at the hours of darkness, as they join at a distance on the telephone or retreat into their very own views (the lighting design is by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew).

Pia explores whether or not it’s doable to change what we keep in mind, and reminiscence’s relationship to id, by delving into empirical examine quite than excavating and sorting by means of feelings. The play consists of maybe one too many descriptions of real-life experiments, that are restricted in dramatic potential.

However “What You Are Now” excels in unforced revelations in regards to the human wrestle to attach, and to share the messy and typically painful tales that make us who we’re. Every little thing we hear and expertise, and the way we keep in mind it, reshapes our brains, Pia says. It’s a scientific testomony to the ability of storytelling to vary minds.

What You Are Now
By April 3 on the Ensemble Studio Theater, Manhattan; Working time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

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