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Body and Soul

Date: Oct 09, 2008


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If you woke up one fine morning and had no idea who you were, you would obviously have some serious problems making your way in the world. Now imagine you woke up next to another person in exactly the same predicament—what would you two say to each other, and what would you do to figure out how you got there?

"I remember waking up one day and this idea sort of came to me for no good reason," says playwright Lee Blessing, whose new drama A Body of Water opens this week at Primary Stages, starring Christine Lahti, Michael Cristofer and Laura Odeh. "What if a couple woke up together and neither of them knew who they were, or who the other one was?" Very quickly, of course, as the idea started to become Blessing's next play, he started to wonder: "Where do you go from there, and what do I want to make that about thematically?"

The answer has resulted in a particularly searching, even experimental play—something of a departure for the writer best known for Walk in the Woods, Going to St. Ives and the perennially revived hostage drama Two Rooms (which in fact is getting a revival now, at Off-Broadway's Lion Theatre).

"This is certainly an exploration in a different direction, in some ways, and yet the action also plays realistically," Blessing says. "I doubt I could characterize anything I've written as totally naturalistic, though most of my plays are more or less realistic." Still, the amnesiac couple in A Body of Water do present "sort of a wrinkle. The play really strains our sense of what's real, or expands it, perhaps. In fact, that's sort of the theme of the play: It asks us to reconsider our fundamental picture of what life really is, and who we really are."

Indeed, the murky, infinitely mysterious subject of identity soon became the main theme of A Body of Water.

"Our identities are a day-to-day product of all sorts of processes in our bodies and our minds," Blessing notes. "There's not a cell in our body that's more than seven years old, so none of is the same person we were when we were children, or young adults, or middle-aged, depending on our age. So what am I, in terms of my body? I'm the memory that persists, and when that goes, it can be enormously traumatic event."

As traumatic as memory loss may be, it is also often a huge trauma that generates the radical erasure of memory we commonly know as amnesia. Blessing admits that while he takes his characters' situation absolutely seriously, he, like most dramatists who use amnesia as a story element, treats it more as a theatrical or literary device than a medical condition.

"We're all familiar with opening up the pages of our favorite tabloid and reading about people who have lost all their memory, and often in alarming patterns," Blessing says. "There are people who forget what happened to them 10 minutes before. I just read something about a woman found in New York Harbor, and the phrase 'dissociative fugue' was used.

"So the fact that there are many different forms of it, and caused by many different things, is an aid to dramatic writers. Because the memory problem translates into a metaphorical one pretty quickly." And a dramatic one, he adds: "Not only do the characters not know who they are, but the answers they do get about about their identity don't make any sense to them."

There's another tricky issue the play broaches, too.

"Another question the play I hope suggests is, Were we to be in a situation like that, how much would we really want to remember? You may start to get the suspicion that you've lost your memory for a good reason."

Embodying this amnesiac couple are two formidable actors we in the audience will have no trouble identifying: Christine Lahti and Michael Cristofer.

"How lucky I feel to be working with this talented cast," Blessing raves. "I did the whole gushy-fan thing the first day with Christine about how much I loved her work." And though Cristofer is an acclaimed playwright in his own right (The Shadow Box, Breaking Up), Blessing says he's "extremely good at knowing which hat he has on. There's a lot of mutual respect between us."

There may be one difference having an actor on board who's also a writer, Blessing explains.

"Sometimes Maria [Mileaf, the director] explains things to him from a writing point of view, in terms of what we want the audience to see, and he responds better to that. With most actors, when you say, 'This is what I want to happen to the audience,' they stare at you blankly, because they don't care—they don't think of that as their job. Their job is to create a life with the other actors onstage. Now, Michael still has to find an actor's way into the material, but he will at least be aware of that larger dimension."

A Body of Water is a departure in other ways: It's not explicitly topical, as some of Blessing's plays have been. Walk in the Woods was about two arms-control negotiators during the twilight of the Cold War, and Two Rooms is about a hostage held in Beirut. As topical as those plays were when they written, they've managed to hold up well—and without changes.

"Right after 9/11, Two Rooms suddenly got a lot of productions, even though it was nearly a 20-year-old play," Blessing says. "One production contacted me about updating the play, but after a few weeks in rehearsal they called back and said, 'I think we'll be fine.' That to me is comment on the chronic nature of the problem."

If Lee Blessing were to wake up tomorrow with amnesia, he wouldn't have to look very hard for clues to his identity. Point him in the direction of a city's theatres, either in New York or regionally, and he would on a quick road to recovery.

Click here for more information about A Body of Water, and here for information about Two Rooms.