Review: 'Forget Me Not' at Upstream Theater is Compelling and Essential

By Christopher Reilly
In Culture

Theater serves us in many ways. It functions as a kind of public discourse that allows us to empathize with the travails of others and encourages us to take a closer look at ourselves, our behavior and our values. But it can also teach us about history. These are all the case with “Forget Me Not,” the haunting story of forced child migration from England beginning in 1618 and lasting until 1970. The cast of four in Upstream Theater’s current production is exemplary across the board, making for an evening of theater that won’t soon be forgotten.

Forget Me Not Photo by Peter Wochniak

“Forget Me Not”
Photo by Peter Wochniak

In the play, written by Australian Tom Holloway and making its American premiere, Gerry (played with perfection by Jerry Vogel) is one such child forced to migrate from England to Australia. Told his mother was dead, Gerry was placed in an orphanage where he endured unspeakable hardships and brutality from which he’s never fully recovered. He’s an alcoholic—a violent one from the stories his daughter tells—and has seemingly never really assimilated into society. He can’t even decide which chair to sit in without being told.

Forget Me Not Photo by Peter Wochniak

“Forget Me Not”
Photo by Peter Wochniak

Daughter Sally (Maggie Conroy) has recently connected him with Mark (Terry Meddows), a social worker who’s with an organization that tries to reunite the children of forced migration with any living relatives. What none of them know is Gerry’s mother (Donna Weinsting) is still alive and living in England. Through a series of fantasy scenes, we meet the mother and witness the uncomfortable reunion between the two, and it is during these we become privy to Gerry’s fears and learn the shocking truth.

Forget Me Not Photo by Peter Wochniak

“Forget Me Not”
Photo by Peter Wochniak

Vogel, grizzled and pummeled by life, gives a masterful performance steeped in emotion, anger, confusion and deep-rooted despair. But it’s not a big, loud, boisterous performance. Rather, his volatile nature bubbles just beneath the surface, threatening to erupt with just the slightest shift in the earth’s crust. It’s miasmic and mesmerizing. Donna Weinsting is equally compelling as mother Mary, who clumsily attempts to navigate the reunion(s) opposite a son who was stolen from her long ago. When she recounts the day her son turned up missing—and the subsequent lie she was given as an explanation—it is thoroughly heartbreaking.

Forget Me Not Photo by Peter Wochniak

“Forget Me Not”
Photo by Peter Wochniak

Maggie Conroy and Terry Meddows as Sally and Mark turn in rock-solid performances as well. Conroy manages to convey a lifetime of disappointment, anger and even hate, while at the same time showing love for the man who—if nothing else—is her birth father. Meddows is low-key, on the one hand a meek social worker who has dedicated his life to helping people, and on the other a man who has seen his share of bullies and will not tolerate them. He takes command when he needs to.

Philip Boehm’s direction is superlative. There is almost nothing on the set—a small couch, a chair, a table—yet the production seems full and rich. The audience was so glued to the action that the actors could have barely whispered their lines and no one would have missed a word. The performances were that sumptuous and the play that compelling.

This is a show that should be experienced just for the performances alone, but the idea that history is important matters too. The notion of not remembering history condemning us to repeat it is moot if we are not privy to the history in the first place. Which history of Christopher Columbus did you learn in school? The heroic story of man who discovered America (never mind that you can’t discover a place that already has an indigenous population), or the truth; that Columbus was a bloodthirsty and unspeakably cruel mass murderer? At a time when our history books are being rewritten and science classes are being subjected to teaching dogma according to political and religious agendas, our insistence on truth is all the more essential. Forget history not.

“Forget Me Not’ continues at Upstream Theater through February 16. For tickets and information, visit the Upstream Theater website.

Follow Christopher Reilly on Twitter @ChristoReilly

HEC TV will televise the second annual St. Louis Theater Circle Awards ceremony ‘live’ from COCA on Monday, March 17.

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