Volume 19 Issue 51 | May 4 -10, 2007

Manuel Harlan

Lee Haven-Jones, Vivien Parry and Simon Nehan in Jonathan Lichtenstein’s “Memory,” which opens May 10 at 59E59.

Something there is that does not love a wall

By Jerry Tallmer

In a rehearsal room somewhere in the British Isles, maybe London, maybe Wales, a director says to his actors: “Let’s start then. ‘Memory.’ It’s raining. It’s Eva’s flat. It’s East Berlin. It’s nineteen ninety. Eva is 78.”

 Peter — that is, the actor playing Peter — knocks on the door of Eva’s flat. “I am Peter,” he says. The actress playing Eva stands, does not move, stares at him. (An acre of space between them, reads the stage direction.)

“I wrote a card,” Peter says. She stares. “Look, if it’s not a good time … Maybe later. The rain. Can I come in?”

 “You are in,” says the old woman. And with those three blunt words we are already deep within the trap of “Memory,” a drama by the 50-year-old Welsh-born playwright Jonathan Lichtenstein that opens May 10 at 59E59 Theatres, under the direction of Terry Hands.

Eva’s grandson (for that’s what he is) has brought her a present — a small piece of the Berlin Wall. “What about it?” she says, unthrilled. “History,” Peter says. He points to a photograph of two young boys — “The ones you saved? Tell me about them.” Saved from the Nazis — according to that shard of family history — by covering their small bodies with her own.

 “There is nothing you don’t know,” she says.

 Ah, but there is, including a gratuitous act of terminal cruelty carried out with the kind of methodical German efficiency that Jonathan Lichtenstein has never forgot, though he cannot remember in what piece of writing — “years and years and years ago” — he first came upon an account of it.

 He does know two other things by personal experience. He knows how dehumanizing a wall can be, whether in the Germany where his family came from or the Israel where some of his relatives now live. And he knows what it was like — how strange it was — when at age 13, in 1971, he went with his father to visit the grandmother in East Berlin, his father’s mother, whom he, Jonathan, had never met.

 She was then, he figures, something like 60 years old, considerably younger than the Eva in this play, but then Jonathan himself was considerably younger than the Peter in the play. All the rest, the playwright says — all but that true-story atrocity he borrowed — is fiction, out of his own head.

 “You sort of start with a memory — a feeling, really — and you work on it,” Jonathan Lichtenstein said by telephone from London a few days ago. “Something you don’t know you’re going to use until you scribble and scribble away. The only thing I wanted to do was to show the way memory hits you in the present.”

 The play posits two men — close friends, business partners, one a Jew, the other not — and one woman whom they both desire, in Germany of the early 1930s. Friendship is soon devoured by Nazism. When, only a few years later, Eva is hit full in the face by cumulative horror, the actress playing her can go no further and starts to cry. “It was a long time ago,” she gasps in mitigation, only to hear the director’s correction: “For Eva it was yesterday, it was this morning. It was just now. For her whole life.”  

 Or as America’s William Faulkner put it: “The past is not dead. It isn’t even past.”

 In Lichtenstein’s “Memory,” some scenes of which flash to where a Palestinian Arab is about to have his house bulldozed in two for the benefit of an Israeli security wall, the past is not past either. The present blooms from the past — flowers of good, flowers of evil.

 What all schoolchildren learn, we were long ago warned by Auden. Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return.

 “A wall can be a very brutal thing,” says the Jonathan Lichtenstein who has been to Israel and seen it. “It’s not like a wall around the island of Manhattan. It’s like a wall around Soho, and you’re not allowed out for five years.”

 He also understands survivors’ intensity of passion. “I once asked an aunt of mine why she emigrated to New Zealand. Turning on me with ferocity, she said: ‘Because no one else would take us.’ ”.

 He himself was born February 11, 1957. in Llandrindod, Wales, pop. 3,000. The question “Is that near where Dylan Thomas comes from?” elicited a laugh and an “about 50 miles — I like the connection — thank you very much.”

 His wife is actress Barbara Pierson. They are the parents of two teenage sons and a 10-year-old daughter. The playwright’s mother is “a good London girl,” Beryl Rush Lichtenstein. Jonathan’s father, like Eva’s daughter, made it out of Hitler Germany as an 11-year-old on a kindertransport. He’s Dr. Hans Lichtenstein, M.D., G.P. “He’s doing fine. He’s great.” The play, which started in another form years ago, is dedicated to him.

 MEMORY. By Jonathan Lichtenstein. Directed by Terry Hands. A Clwyd Theatr Cymru production,  May 10 to May 27 a 59E59 Theaters, (212) 279-4200.

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