San Francisco Bay Area theatre companies, ever ambitious, have an unusual penchant for developing new work to go hand-in-hand with their productions of newer plays and classic revivals. This lends a level of excitement to companies in the area, making them feel that they are pushing the boundary instead of just holding down the fort. Occasionally, this can produce great work, like Barry Eitel’s unmistakably San Franciscan The Ice Cream Sandwich Incident. But the challenges of world premieres in the stead of producing the greatest shows of the last five years in New York can have its downfall. When companies get their pick of the litter from New York shows, they have a much higher chance of choosing great material, but a new piece is always a shot in the dark.
One of these world premieres is Donal O’Kelly’s The Memory Stick, which is a co-production between The Stage, San Jose and the Arts Office of Dublin City Council Ireland. It’s an ambitious piece, and there are strands within it that might eventually make a satisfying evening of theatre, but O’Kelly has a fair amount of work to do before it becomes a production that this reviewer could recommend. “Work” is the operative word here, as while The Memory Stick is part of The Stage’s main season, it feels far more like a developmental lab than a completed piece of work. It is thus unfair to delve too deeply into the ways that The Memory Stick fails to hold the attention, and yet it is still unfair to ask audience members to see an unfinished show for finished prices.
Set on an army base in Afghanistan in 2016, The Memory Stick is concerned with the meeting of two Native American soldiers, who start a makeshift sweat lodge, and who are occasionally joined by Bridget, an Irish woman who, for some reason, works on the base as part of the janitorial staff. The play begins as a sort-of trio of memory plays, in which every character’s cultural background is given a heavy emphasis as having weight on their current actions. However, the play then morphs into a morality play based around the titular memory stick that one of the characters might have recorded illegal data onto, before finally deciding on a drama about upholding cultural values in a society that no longer regards said values as important. There’s also plot threads about the continued systematic oppression of the Native American and Irish peoples, as well as a bizarre segment of the play devoted to Chelsea Manning.
If that sounds like a ridiculous amount of plot, it is, but it’s also far easier to take seriously onstage than upon reflection. What The Memory Stick fails to do is get the audience to care about any of the characters onstage in any sort of meaningful way. The personalities of each character change to whatever the scene needs at that moment, the dialogue is stilted in such a way that emotional distance is inevitable, and O’Kelly, Irishman that he is, seems to have a very academic viewpoint of the Native American culture. One of the two Native American characters (named Jack Black Horse) recounts tale after tale of the history of atrocities committed by the American government against the natives, to the point where it seems that O’Kelly thinks that Native Americans have no personality or interests to speak of beyond their past. I wouldn’t call it reductionist, but it certainly uses its Native American people as symbolic representations far more than as characters. What’s more effective is the character of Bridget, whose ruminating about her past life in Ireland is so much better than the rest of the play that it actually feels like a different work all together. It helps greatly that Lyndsy Kail, who plays Bridget, is giving the best performance of the evening (though the whole 3-person cast is strong), somehow both childlike in her wonder and elderly in her wisdom. If there’s a great play within The Memory Stick, it’s within the character of Bridget. Tony Kelly’s staging is clear and focused, and Kimily Conkle, the dialect coach, has gotten the cast to speak in letter-perfect Irish and Welsh accents.
The Memory Stick is a mess, but there’s something interesting lying under the layers of chaos, and I would encourage author Donal O’Kelly to continue to develop the play until it is ready for a proper audience. It could be the best drama that I’ll see in 2019, but 2017’s version still needs a few more hours to bake in the over before it’s safe to eat.
The Memory Stick plays at The Stage in Downtown San Jose through April 30th. Tickets and information available here.