You would think that the latest Ensemble Studio Theatre/Alfred P. Sloan Science & Technology Project developed with The Civilians would have a great deal to do with science. (FYI, The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation makes grants for theater about science, technology and economics.) However, the science behind Sam Chanse’s what you are now is in the printed program but not in the play. The heroine Pia tells us she is a biochem major, but then ten years later she is researching neuroscience to help understand her traumatized mother. (Does one lead to the other? We aren’t told the path.) The unexplained title is described in the program as a quote from Michael Specter’s New Yorker profile of neuroscientist Daniela Schiller in which he wrote that memory is “what you are now, not what you think you were in the past. When you change the story you created, you change your life.” This would have been helpful if it appeared in the actual play as you may not read this until after the performance when you are on your way home.
What the play is really about is the treatment of Cambodian-American refugees. This is poignant drama of a Cambodian family torn apart by a nearly catatonic mother, a workaholic daughter and a son who has run with gangs as a way of fitting in who live in Lowell, Massachusetts, where many Cambodian refugees were relocated during the Khmer Rouge takeover of their country. It is a powerful story of dreams deferred and a family destroyed both by a war and then the indifference of a supposedly friendly nation to their desperate situation. The science of memory would have made this less of a family drama but there are hardly any facts provided other than name dropping of such researchers as Pavlov and the mention of a recent experiment on rats to recondition them to painful memories, but so far this has not had any useable results on humans.
While the acting of the five-member cast piloted by Steve Cosson, artistic director of The Civilians, is excellent, the play’s structure makes it very hard to follow: set in 2012 every scene is followed by a flashback to 2002 and occasionally 1992. At times it feels like flashbacks within flashbacks but actually that only happens once or twice as a voice-over. The scenery by Riw Rakkulchon doesn’t help either. The unit set in a nondescript blue-grey overlaps Pia’s lab and/or office and her mother’s kitchen. While the main characters do not change costumes (designed by An-lin Dauber), there are no clues as to the shift in time except that they walk to the other side of the stage as in another set.
Pia is a workaholic science researcher interested in theories about healing the mind from traumatic memories. Her interest is personal as her mother has never recovered from the events she witnessed in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, losing husband, colleagues and family, before she immigrated to the U.S. with seven-year-old son Darany and unborn daughter Pia. New problems arise when Siobhan, Darany’s ex-girlfriend from ten years before, shows up as the program director for KTA (Khmers Taking Action), a nonprofit based in Long Beach, California, and wants to interview Pia’s mother Chantrea about her experiences during the war in Cambodia.
Unfortunately, not only has Chantrea never spoken about it to her family she has never spoken about it in the 30 years since she came to Lowell. This triggers Pia’s memories of growing up with a mother who could not show affection and a brother who got himself into trouble with the law. Pia’s own career has been hampered by not being able to leave Lowell and pursue the jobs she has wanted as she feels she cannot leave her mother on her own.
While the new therapies that Pia is interested in, described in the work of neuroscientists Karim Nader and Joseph E. LeDoux, are not viable at the present time, psychoanalysis or therapy is available to deal with deep-seated trauma. This is never mentioned at any time in the play or considered as an alternative. All we learn of Pia’s work is that she writes grant proposals and teaches college courses; we do not learn anything of the research that we assume she is doing.
As a heroine, Pisay Pao’s Pia is so uptight and withdrawn that she makes identifying with her very difficult. So too her mother Chantrea seems almost frozen in her daily life so that we have no way of knowing her or her story. More interesting is Pia’s brother, the extroverted Darany, played by Robert Lee Leng, but his reliance on street slang often makes it difficult to understand him. Curran Connor is upright and understanding as Pia’s colleague and later boyfriend Evan but we learn so little about him that he remains a mystery. As Darany’s half-Cambodian, half-Irish girlfriend Siobhan, Emma Kikue is involving as first a friend and then a girlfriend, but due to a personal betrayal we come to like her less than before.
As a play about neuroscience, Sam Chanse’s what you are now needs a great deal more data and information. As a play about the plight of Cambodian refugees, what are you now needs to be clearer and less convoluted, although ultimately it is quite powerful and moving. Informative about the startling situation of these refugees, the play needs to be seen and heard, but in this form it defeats its own purposes by being confusing in chronology and not offering the drama behind the science of trauma and memory.
what you are now (March 9 – April 3, 2022)
Ensemble Studio Theatre, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and The Civilians
EST/Alfred P. Sloan Science & Technology Project
Curt Dempster Theatre, 545 W. 52nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.EnsembleStudioTheatre.org
Running time: one hour and 40 minutes with no intermission