For many, memories can be a wonderful thing. They have the ability to transcend time and space — perhaps to when things were simpler or more innocent. For others, they can often leave one paralyzed in more ways than one, stuck on a never-ending loop. In the case of Marta Mondelli‘s Toscana, or What I Remember, it is the latter which seems to hold its grasp around the character Emma (played by Ms. Mondelli herself).
The picturesque backdrop of Tuscany belies the painful memories it may bring to the people in it — particularly, ex-pat Emma, who has just returned to her her native Tuscany for her father’s funeral. Upon her return, she is confronted by memories at every turn. From the children’s bookstore she remembers frequenting as a young girl; to the bakery which once stood across the street from her hotel; to even the familiar song a young girl nearby persistently sings (much to her annoyance) — a bevy of seemingly fond childhood remembrances but which in reality are relics representative of a more troubled past. At the receiving end of her frustration is Emma’s American husband Fred (Scott Barton), who himself is bound to a wheelchair — the result of a car accident, referred to later in the play through expository dialogue. Between the two of them, these memories of past traumas leave their relationship stilted and in constant turmoil, both emotionally and physically.
Serving as counterpoint (as well as some much-needed comedic relief) to the veteran couple is another couple on holiday: the younger and ever-so-cheery Coles, comprised of botany professor and expert Larry (Lance Olds) and his pregnant wife Sue (Nicole Kontolefa). The Coles, who hail from Wisconsin, find themselves abroad due to a conference Larry is attending, and in awe at everything the Tuscan countryside has to offer (much, again, to Emma’s chagrin). The two seemingly mismatched couples clash by the pool, their differences at first much more apparent than their similarities, whatever these may be.
After a few awkward run-ins and misunderstandings, Sue and Fred find themselves alone, pondering the mysteries of the human body, whilst Emma and Larry do the same, albeit with the latter dispensing some botanically-infused wisdom along with it. He describes something called habituation, in which a plant learns to adapt itself to its environment: “There is this plant that opens and closes its flowers,” he starts. “If you drop this flower, let’s say, fifty times, the first few times the plant will take a long time to re-open its flowers. Because that’s a new stimulus. But on the fiftieth time, it will take only a few seconds.”
The flower within the play itself, of course, is Emma, whose own memory seems to wilt and diminish as the play goes on, the repeated stimulus of the young child’s singing constantly haunting her. Later on, when Larry encounters her once again by the pool, he witnesses Emma engulfed in yet another memory, splayed on a lounge chair and speaking to him in Italian, clearly mistaking him for her father. She comes to, and once again, earlier musings on the effect of memories physically and metaphysically come back into play. As she explains to Larry, the respective translations of the Italian words for “remember” and “forget” literally describe how memories lodge themselves within us: first, acquired through your heart (ricordare), before flowing through every pore of your body, eventually evaporating from your mind (dimenticare) and into thin air. Emma’s own tortured memories do not dissipate quite as easily and instead completely take over her. Eventually, it is revealed that the incidents of mistaken identity between the characters aren’t just scrambled memories, but rather something far worse: a muscle memory of sorts that Emma’s body can’t soon forget…even if her mind already has.
Toscana, Ms. Mondelli’s second outing at the Cherry Lane Theatre (the first of which being the excellent The Window, which I had the pleasure of reviewing for Off Off Online here.), is yet another example of the playwright’s many strengths. The ability to condense big ideas into an intimate piece of theatre is perhaps one of the hardest tasks any writer is given, and one which Ms. Mondelli not only tackles gamely, but also executes with ease. Such ease depicted onstage must also be attributed to the trio of cast members at her side, whose collective commitment to their respective roles lends just the right amount of gravitas, humor and everything in between. As a whole, Toscana is a lovely exploration into Memory and its grasp on places and people, and a piece worthy of self-exploration of one’s own.