Culture & Conversation

Memory’s Fault Lines

My favourite moments in Swan Song of Maria were watching Joe, played by Joel Miller, tenderly support his wife, Jillian (Ranee Lee), through her struggle with insecurity and mental decline. The couple has spent a lifetime together, and even the great conflicts and loss they face are subsumed within the container of their love and relationship. Still, the man has patience.

In a recurring exchange, Jillian expresses her tormenting jealousy over Joe’s youthful passion for Maria, a young Cuban woman. Joe points out the obvious: “I married you.” But Jillian replays Joe’s infatuation, reaching back past a lifetime together, in order to pick the wounds of her self-esteem. Despite Jillian’s continued complaints, Joe loves and accepts that this is Jillian, rather than some misunderstanding that can be clarified.

There is much human frailty here, and memory plays a central role. Curiously, Jillian is not the only one replaying memories of the past. Joe walks the stage reciting political rhetoric inspired by his time in Cuba, now a half-century past. Of his present fate, he barely utters a word, but when it comes to revolution, will he ever stop? For Joe the memories seem a defense against reality, as though youth could be preserved by holding onto its dreams.

As Jillian’s caretaker in their older years, Joe faces more than her insecurity. Jillian’s loss of memory robs her of abilities and comprehension. Conveyed well by Lee, Jillian struggles in her lucid moments to preserve her dignity and control her life in spite of illness. Her worst moments are terrifying. Miller plays Joe with abundant compassion and resolve, although he may not be capable of giving Jillian what she needs.

In its world premiere at the Black Theater Workshop, Carol Cece Anderson’s probing play was directed by Tyrone Benskin. The set was designed by Amy Keith with costuming by Susana Vera.

With strong acting, the play achieves a moving portrait of difficult subject matter. While the set allowed for a few dance bits at the front of the stage, it caused the far-more-intimate action to be set back. This may not have been the best choice, since so much of the drama is already sombre and contained.

While the bulk of Swan Song of Maria takes place in their later years, I also had difficulty with the flashbacks to earlier days. These scenes, such as Jillian’s pregnancy, work best when gimmicks, such as the pillow in Jillian’s belly, show us that they are in their youth. Without such props or more complete costume changes, I found it difficult to imagine the two characters at different points in their lives.

Swan Song of Maria continues through November 22. For details and ticket information, go to the Black Theatre Workshop site.

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