REVIEW: Lesson in Forgetting at Pleiades Theatre

Fans of the film The Vow might have a soft spot for Pleiades Theatre’s Lesson in Forgetting, the English-language translation of Emma Haché’s Exercice de l’oubli. Nicholas Sparks’ story and Emma Haché’s play share similar themes: a catastrophic car crash, a life-altering brain injury, a marriage in shreds, even a whisper of infidelity.

Both Sparks’ and Haché’s texts ask the same existential question: in the absence of memory, can love survive? The Vow, dripping with sentimentality, answers that question affirmatively; Lesson in Forgetting does not.

Following a couple named simply He and She, Lesson in Forgetting unfurls in the aftermath of a terrible car crash in which He suffered a blow to the head. He’s now in the hospital, a forgetful ghost of his former self. She, of seemingly infinite patience, visits him daily, talking to him, playing memory games with him. Time passes. She grows tired of the charade, while he never realizes there is one.

It’s a story primed for tissues and a post-show tub of Ben & Jerry’s. But despite a beguiling cast, this production doesn’t let us reach that emotional height.

Director Ash Knight has experimented with the bones of Haché’s text, inserting a third actor into this two-person story. Although Reese Cowley brings lighthearted charm to the role of the Narrator, the character’s function in the play becomes more and more obscured as the story unfolds. At times, she is a daughter who was never conceived. Others, she is a mirror of She, speaking in (almost) unison from a few feet away. Cowley’s character is a statue, a dancer, a storyteller: the Narrator’s central purpose in the plot is murky, and unfortunately tends to pull focus from the love story Haché wants to tell. Cowley’s performance is lovely and fairy-like, but that sparkliness feels awkward against the grimness of His and Her new reality as strangers — that’s the story which grips us, and the insertion of another figure takes that magnetism away.

As the memory-starved He, Andrew Moodie offers delicate layers of emotion, pairing silliness with despair as needed. Moodie’s portrayal of mental injury feels authentic and raw: never does He feel like a caricature. Moodie anchors an otherwise wispy production, exploring every facet of his complicated and ever-changing character.

She is the harder sell, not helped by an English translation which, at times, feels quite stilted — Haché’s metaphors and idioms seem to have become muddled on the journey to their English-language premiere. While Ma-Anne Dionisio portrays grief beautifully, the character’s intentions often feel belaboured by language: repetition of “my darling” by both He and She grows to feel more and more awkward. As well, Her decision to lie about having a child with Him is one difficult to accept, given the grim reality of her husband’s timeless and placeless existence post-accident. Dionisio has a gentleness about her which affords tender scenes their requisite warmth, but that gentleness often gives way to quietness — she can be difficult to hear, especially when facing away from the audience.

Set and costumes by Jackie Chau are simple and attractive, though the choice of ballet slippers for Her and the Narrator doesn’t always make sense — perhaps it’s further commentary on Her and the Narrator’s tangled relationship? Chau’s set is accessorized by projections from Denyse Karn, which shine when seasons change in the story. Marissa Orjalo (who, full disclosure, is a classmate of mine at U of T) has composed original music for Lesson in Forgetting, and her piano-led underscore is beautiful and understated. Music often fills in gaps where language cannot, and when projections and music intersect with Dionsio and Moodie’s performances, magic happens. It is in these moments Knight’s vision becomes clear, if only fleetingly.

Lesson in Forgetting is a melancholy play which concludes with the sombre realization that love cannot, in fact, endure all things. With winning actors at its helm and a story dripping with sadness, I wish it had more chances to pack its emotional punches. I’d be curious, too, to hear the text in the original French — I wonder what turns of phrase might have been lost in translation. I look forward to seeing the play further developed and stretched — Haché’s story certainly has the capacity to tear-jerk, even if it doesn’t quite get there at Pleiades.

Lesson in Forgetting runs at Pleiades Theatre through May 22. Tickets are available here.

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Written By

Aisling is Intermission's Senior Editor and a graduate student at the University of Toronto. She is President of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association. She also likes British playwright Sarah Kane, most songs by Taylor Swift, and her cat, Fig.