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The Memory Exam

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 10, 2022

Vernice Miller, Gus Kaikkonen, Bekka Lindström,
and Alfred Gingold

Photo by Carol Rosegg
I'm trying to remember the lyrics to a song without looking them up. It's a song about memories, and it was sung by Barbra Streisand, the theme from the film The Way We Were. Here's what I can come up with on my own: "Memories. From the cobwebs of my mind. Misty, missing, mismatched memories of the way we were." Go ahead, laugh. Or shake your head. Or roll your eyes. I won't die of embarrassment. But if I were one of the unlucky characters in Steven Fechter's dystopian play The Memory Exam, I might very well be put to death for my forgetfulness.

The Memory Exam, a production of Oberon Theatre Ensemble opening tonight at 59E59 Theaters, begins with a trio of septuagenarians on what appears to be a day-hike deep into the woods somewhere in upstate New York. They are a married couple, Jen (Bekka Lindström) and Hank (Alfred Gingold), and their friend Tom (Gus Kaikkonen). They are accompanied by a fourth and younger person, Dale (Vernice Miller), whom the other three have hired to be their guide. But not as a trail guide. Instead, Dale is there to do nothing less than to help keep the other three alive in a society where you are deemed worthy of continuing to exist only until your mind starts to slip. And beware, because, as in George Orwell's "1984," you never know who might inform on you.

We soon learn that Jen, Hank, and Dale have all been ratted out, and all three have received notices that they must report to the authorities in order to take the notorious "memory exam." Pass and you are free to go and live out your days. Fail and you will never be seen again. Most fail. The hopes of the three about to face the exam rest with Dale, who has become an expert on helping others prepare for it. Turns out, the exam itself is deceptively simple, though it is designed to trip up anyone taking it.

The Memory Exam is at its strongest when it concentrates and builds on this central premise. Judging from my own experience and from the looks on the faces and even the occasional gasps from many in the audience, empathy with the senior characters is the play's strong suit. This buy-in is a solid demonstration of the credibility of the writing and of the performances under Terrence O'Brien's tight direction. It's not too hard to imagine a future in which involuntary euthanasia becomes a means of "culling the herd" in order to address extreme overpopulation and increasingly impossible demands on natural resources.

I regret having to end with an unfortunate sour note. But as too often happens in short plays, the otherwise polished and credible narrative has been padded by bringing in two additional plot threads that barely pass as "tangential." One involves dredging up a prior relationship between two of the characters, and the other takes us into the realm of middling dystopian tales you might routinely see on an episodic TV show. Losing or rewriting these might shorten the 80-minute play, but it would keep everything where it belongs, in the territory of the scarily possible.

The Memory Exam
Oberon Theatre Ensemble
Through October 25, 2022
59E59 Theaters, Theater C
59 East 59th Street, New York
Tickets online and current performance schedule: