Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

The Memory Stick
The Stage
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's reviews of Rags and Frankenstein

Photo: John R. Lewis, Joseph D. Valdez,
and Lyndsy Kail

Photo by Dave Lepori
"Sun going down
Like a burning drum,
Sun going down on America"

As they look to the western sky on their way home from yet another tour of duty in the war-torn Middle East, two American soldiers and an Irish contract maintenance worker recite and re-recite these solemn lines as they look out the windows of Shannon Airport. The bonds they have formed while in Kandahar, Afghanistan, have been sorely tested. They are not the people they once were. Wars—both the present and those long ago—have affected them greatly and have tested each about what it means to be loyal to country, to friends, to heritage, to self.

In a co-commission with the Dublin City Arts Office and the Irish Theatre Institute, The Stage opens the world premiere production of The Memory Stick by Donal O'Kelly, a play about what it means and what it costs to stand up against all odds. Lyrically directed, often as in a dreamscape, by Tony Kelly, the play employs storytelling, soul searching, heritage exploration, and mystic escapes to scenes of the past by the three principal characters—mostly all done within the confines of a sweat lodge built on their military base.

Jack Black Horse and Seth Shaw have decided to replace dog tags marking them as "Catholic" and instead to request "Native American" be engraved, Jack being of Lakota and Seth of Choctaw heritage. Their elation in receiving both permission and the actual dog tags leads them to seek further permission to build what will become called "the cave"—a refuge where they heat scrap metal, throw water on it, and create a kind of sweat lodge in which they begin to "storify." It is during those periods when they and their one invited guest—a red-haired maintenance worker from Shannon, Ireland, named Bridget Brady—experience what Jack describes as "the only time I feel totally alive."

Their stories recall happy and sad times with fathers and grandfathers in places like a mist-covered lake that opens magically into a river running through Ireland. They become animals talking to each other or children playing games. Vision quests lead them to places both scary and sacred as they both listen to each other in serene awe and then join in to participate in another's stories. Visiting their dark sanctuary are heroes of their inherited pasts, men who stood up and sacrificed all for causes they believed in—people like Irish republican leader of the 1916 Easter Rising, James Connolly, and Lakota leader Crazy Horse, who challenged the U.S. government's encroachment into Native American territory in 1876.

As Jack and Seth—veterans of repeated tours of duty in the wars the U.S. has fought in the Middle East during the past twenty-five years—are both proud and beginning to question the merit of America's and their conquests, another figure begins to enter their visions and stories: Chelsea (once Bradley) Manning. It is this last visitor into their stories who begins to lead each to question just how loyal he and the other is ... and to what cause.

This premiere of The Memory Stick is truly a tour de force for the ensemble of three actors who share so much back and forth in their stories and reminisces that it is difficult to single out the merits of one over the other. Joseph Valdez (Jack), John R. Lewis (Seth), and Lyndsy Kail (Bridget) work in many ways as one combined actor to create a searing yet mesmerizing glimpse into a journey of discovery that leads each to a place not expected.

Jack has a spontaneous intensity that is often half playful kid, half crazed adult. He romps, bounces and jumps about only to suddenly collapse into a meditative drumming and séance of memory and exploring. Joseph Valdez keeps pushing his own boundaries as an actor as Jack pushes his fellow travelers and us to consider what is the truth that needs to be seen, to be told.

Seth is big burly sort who follows along with Jack's wild plans and suggestions and is increasingly eager to delve into that minority percentage of his own Native American self that comes from a great-grandmother. As Seth, Mr. Lewis tells with nimble steps across an imaginary high wire the story about "Chuck," and his out-of-body experience is stunning and spine-tingling to behold as he reenacts "Chuck's" version of the sacred, Native American "ghost dance."

Lyndsy Kail's Bridget hears voices at night—voices of kids laughing, women singing, and men shouting over drums—all next to a river that keeps appearing in her stories of Ireland along with a tearful dad who fought in Vietnam, seeing sights he cannot forget. Bridget's own visions and stories are told with a feminine touch and sensitivity that balances well against the more boisterous tales of the her two pals, but the power they have on her and them is no less monumental as they all approach decisions that will change who they are as they leave Afghanistan for home.

Michael Palumbo's floor of wood chips and simple set of concrete blocks and the discarded scraps of a war zone is made all the more actual by his own outstanding lighting design and the combined realistic and mystic voice, sounds and music provided by Steve Schoenbeck. Vijay M. Rajah's videos bring both faraway dreams and harsh realities to full bear. Abra Berman's costumes remind us that right outside the cave's refuge, a war is in fact raging.

Throughout this compelling play that is often more like an epic poem, one phrase is repeated time and again that is purported to be James Connolly's last prayer before being executed in 1916 by a British firing squad: "I will say a prayer for all brave men who do their duty according to their lights." In this production of Donal O' Kelly's The Memory Stick at The Stage, a memory stick of films surreptitiously taken on a war field becomes a test for the three characters and for us of just what "according to their lights" really means to each of them—and to us.

The Memory Stick continues through April 30, 2017, at The Stage, 490 South First Street, San Jose, CA. Tickets are available at or by calling the box office at 408-283-7142.