I remember my mom pulling a knife on my dad at least twice; it was how you signified displeasure during the Vietnam era, kitchen-table saber-rattling. This was good old-school close combat, like the household and neighborhood chair- and baseball-bat-fights my folks themselves remembered growing up with, in an era before differences were worked out coldly from half a world away by pushing a button, or could be forgotten with the click of a TV remote. Mom and Dad took me to my only anti-Vietnam War protest, at age 5, but they were from World War II, almost the grandparent age of most kids I knew, so there was a whole era of failed social experiments (open marriages! shuttle custody! family group therapy!) that I missed out on. I need to watch movies like The Ice Storm to learn about that phase of my own lifetime, and Julia Lee Barclay-Morton’s My First Autograce Homeography (1973-1974) is that kind of reconstruction.
History remixes itself in Barclay-Morton’s text and director Ian W. Hill’s ingeniously abstract staging, with a chess-piece ensemble of elders and juniors and those left in-between enacting half-recalled family traumas and fractures. We know that Heather (a master painting of personality and prismatic emotional reaction by Stephanie Willing) is subject to the whims of warring parents and inadequate authority figures as she stands in (and leaps, and staggers) for the author as a tween-ish girl. The knives come out, often literally and from abusive surrogate parent Mrs. Levine (a seismic psychological guignol, outsized but never overboard, from Alyssa Simon), as real-mom and “new new dad” (two pillars of attractive remoteness, Olivia Baseman and Derrick Peterson) give self-justifying monologues, “Son of Levine” (an endearingly weird, suitably Bud Cort-esque John Amir) provides some companionship and “The Authority” (David Arthur Bachrach as an unspecified patriarch/preacher in an arabesque of flummoxed faith and self-importance) insubstantially weighs in.
Barclay-Morton’s libretto is a shreddered poetic confetti, its insightful nonsequiturs like fragmentary phrases of a language you didn’t speak at the time, as all childhood relations with grownups are; the narrative is a gauze of memory, unraveling one spiral at a time, as adult retrospect of these same events always is.
Meaning coalesces like an occasional kaleidoscope convergence, nearing and then pulling away from the heart of the matter; every crescendo in Hill’s soundtrack is abruptly cut off, like tics suppressed and revelations hurriedly submerged. Willing’s Heather is a spun-off musicbox figure careening through this like a confused time-traveler to her own present; the ensemble as a whole have the look of off-register film images willfully overlapped or indifferently synched.
These mechanical reference points place the human beings into Hill’s clockwork of old ad-jingle and pop-hit and news-report sound and video cues (puppetmastered with eerie instinct by Berit Johnson), an unbidden memory running itself and making everyone’s own experience feel observed rather than lived in, a ghost even the first time.
Hill’s powers of suggestion in stagecraft and palpable texture in deployment of light reach their latest apex here, with bleaching spotlighting to convert tangible figures to fading film images, nervous-breakdown strobes to prolong physical conflicts, boxes of magic brightness to convey wonders kept beyond our sight.
Earlier in the play, New New Dad is often seen in a fatigue jacket to signify the constant cloak of the Vietnam War; much later, Heather is seen posing in the same jacket, accessorized with machine gun, to convey the revolutionary chic of ’70s homegrown guerrilla Patty Hearst. The enemy has gone from foreign to domestic, in more than one sense; the war, as news-anchors used to tell us, was “in our living room” and then the troops came home; and these days, we bring guns to a knife-fight.
At the end, in a haze of smoke, the cast cuts the fog with light shining from film projectors that have nothing in them, searchlights sweeping for just the sight of their own glow, and a makeshift pair of symbolic headlights, formed from clip lamps hanging at random angles, glare into the audience, two eyes blinding and pushing away your sight. Heather has, after all, long outlived the story, and not every light is seen by staring straight at it, and there’s something to wake up to when you close your eyes.
The show runs through November 22, 2014 at The Brick in Brooklyn, USA; http://tinyurl.com/mcjb8xz