Memoirs of a Forgotten Man
Lynette Rathnam as Natalya and Chris Stinson as Alexei in Memoirs of a Forgotten Man by D.W. Gregory at Washington Stage Guild through May 29; Credit: DJ Corey Photography

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Moscow, 1957: The stage for D.W. Gregory‘s Memoirs of a Forgotten Man is dominated by a mural valorizing Joseph Stalin, the sunrise to his back, his eyes looking toward a future as western nations are brought into the Soviet Bloc. Scenic designer Joseph B. Musumeci Jr. signals that despite Stalin’s death four years prior, he still looms large.

“The Khrushchev Thaw” has begun. Some who survived Stalin’s purges have a chance at reinvention or official rehabilitation, and yet the Soviet Union remains a totalitarian police state. Natalya Berezina (Lynette Rathnam), a psychologist, has been called to see Comrade Kreplev (Steven Carpenter). His office is drab, made of frosted glass in rusty metal frames. A case study of a patient Berezina examined back in 1937 has now been accepted for publication. But Kreplev is not an academic—he’s a Party member with ties to the security establishment,. Even after peer-review, his stamp of approval is necessary for her career—after years of setbacks—to advance forward. He has questions.

The set-up of a citizen brought before a representative of a state’s security apparatus is familiar one—recent examples on local stages include Daniel Kehlmann‘s Christmas Eve, Tim J. Lord‘s We declare you a terrorist…, and Harold Pinter‘s One for the Road. Gregory, the playwright, clearly understands the genre. Kreplev makes some friendly gestures, offering a drink, almond cookies, and confiding in her a haunting childhood memory. Kreplev has a full dossier on Berezina, but is less concerned about her, or her politics. He playfully hints that she could expand her study into a book, but he’s not a publisher. Is he trustworthy? Or is this an effort to make her compromise herself? 

What makes Memoirs of a Forgotten Man stand out is that this interview serves as a framing device for another story: Kreplev wants to know about the man Berezina interviewed 20 years prior—especially the parts of the narrative left out of the paper. Berezina’s position might be compared to Scheherazade in the 1,001 Nights, an anthology famed for its many stories within stories. How long can she stretch out her answers to be able to return home, to her career—and with a published paper—without compromising her subject’s identity or being sent to the Gulag? 

Leningrad, 1937: Berezina’s subject, Alexei (Chris Stinson) possesses an extraordinary memory. He can recite long lists of numbers and words that he’s only briefly seen. When she asks about his childhood growing up with his mother (Laura Giannarelli) and older brother Vasily (Carpenter), she discovers that his memories are colored and flavored with synesthesia.

While most perceive the world through distinct senses, for the synesthete, one set of stimuli triggers a sequence of other sensory impressions: The sound his boots make as he walks through the mud tastes like apricots, and when “men of conviction” speak, their words glow “like electric signs.” In contrast to the interrogation language, Gregory is linguistically playful with Alexei’s synesthetic descriptions, often underlining how Alexei, who has his own complex world of associations, is constantly vexed by everyday idiomatic expressions. This linguistic playfulness gives lighting designer Marianne Meadows the opportunity to use splashes of color when Alexei speaks. In her program notes, Gregory states that she was inspired by Alexander Luria‘s 1968 case history of Solomon Shereshevsky, a journalist whose brain was similarly wired for memory and synesthesia. Shereshevsky, like Alexei, was known for literal-mindedness (though neither Luria nor Shereshevsky appear to have had the political problems of Berezina or Alexei).

Alexei’s talent for being able to write out any speech he’s heard, word-for-word, leads to work as a journalist. His editor, Utkina (Giannarelli), informs him that Nikolai Bukharin (former editor of Pravda and later Izvestia), who spoke at an event he distinctly remembers covering the year before, was not there. The archives send file photos altered to match the new official record. Alexei is told to rewrite his article to conform with this Bukharin storyline. (These sorts of editorial practices inspired the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell‘s 1984.) Alexei’s shock comes not from any political sympathies—he has no allegiance to politicians whose words are like “bouncing balls”—he’s simply too guileless to grasp why he ought to accommodate that request. 

His brother, the more politically astute Vasily, sees the danger of a perfect memory both to the government and to the family (a danger Kreplev identifies two decades later). Meanwhile their mother’s friend, Demidova (Rathnam, who remarkably transforms herself in this second role), regularly visits bearing gifts raided from the pantries of those hauled off the night before.

Director Kasi Campbell maintains a steady hand, ensuring smooth transitions between the years of purge and thaw, and is aided by the strong chemistry among the ensemble. 

Many have suggested that current trends in book banning, ideological silos, or media entities with clear biases are creating a sliding slope towards totalitarian attitudes in our own society. Nonetheless, whether we assent to that prognostication, many of the nations regularly appearing in our newsfeeds have been shaped by a history of purges of people and publications, and that, whether through their own official state media, or through swarms of bots, might be seeking to shape our own.

Memoirs of a Forgotten Man, written by D.W. Gregory, directed by Kasi Campbell, and presented by Washington Stage Guild, runs through May 29 at 900 Massachusetts Ave. NW. $25–$60.