Austin Jewish Repertory Theater's The Art of Remembering

In Adina L. Ruskin's play, AJRT offers an intimate look at how memories shape us

Memory in triplicate: (l-r) Sarah Viskovich, Michelle Alexander, and Sarah Zeringue (Photo by Ken Nordhauser)

A lot of people in my immediate circles are currently subscribed to a life philosophy best (and most succinctly) described as "living in the now." The crux of this ideology centers around the intentional letting go of past memories or expectations of the future in exchange for a (relatively) cognitively peaceful experience in the present. On paper, it sounds peachy. But more often than not, when I try to empty my mind, I get distracted. Maybe I'm in the park, trying to escape into my head, or the library, trying to escape into a book, when someone walks by wearing the same perfume my kindergarten teacher wore – and suddenly, instead of focusing on the wind or birdsong or page 37, I find myself splayed out on the storytime carpet at Mrs. Hankimer's feet, stretching my hand out for the single piece of red-hot candy that always followed read-aloud time.

Memory is powerful stuff. It's constantly pushing its way into the present, informing us of the surrounding world, influencing our decisions, and permeating our personalities. And sometimes (often when we are at our most vulnerable), those memories flood in strong and liquid and unrelenting like the ocean, leaving us no choice but to flounder and sputter and do our best to stay afloat until our mind spits us back onto the present shoreline. It's happened to all of us.

Austin Jewish Repertory Theater, under the direction of Adam Roberts, has captured this experience to a tee in its latest production, The Art of Remembering, a powerful one-act journey through a grieving woman's neural pathways as she comes to terms with a difficult life event.

In Adina L. Ruskin's play, Rebecca has come home to bury her father. As she cleans out her childhood closet, she finds herself immersed in the past. Her persona splits into three different aspects, each played by a different actor. Together, the three Rebeccas (with a little help from some onscreen projections and rolling trunks), drift from memory to memory, reconfiguring and re-enacting the past in an attempt to console, celebrate, and reconcile.

The elements of The Art of Remembering are all simple yet elegant. Preshow, the audience is greeted with three screens covered with delightful, Magritte-esque clouds, three rolling trunks, and nothing more. The cast (composed of theatrical veterans Michelle Alexander, Sarah Viskovich, and Sarah Zeringue) proceed to seamlessly make their way through the text's cognitive leaps in perfect unison, at some points in the piece becoming three different people, at other times three parts of the same person. Time and space are defined by a graceful light design combined with projected images on the screened proscenium, taking you in and out of stories and places as Rebecca's synapses fire back through the past.

While not built on a traditional narrative arc (and running a mere 50 minutes), the production is filled with stories. There's a memory about an Argentinian activist, a grandmother whose heart houses equal parts unconditional love and moxie, a feisty Texan, and a woman who saw the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall – among many others. And as you bear witness to these memories, you begin to see Rebecca as the sum of her collective past, a beautiful collage of all that has happened around her.

The Art of Remembering is an intimate, honest, and moving theatrical experience honoring the memories that shape us, the people who touch us, and a past that sometimes picks us up, takes us for an unexpected ride, then carries us all the way back to the present, wiser and braver and more resolved. It's a well-executed production, and one that isn't easily forgotten.

The Art of Remembering

Trinity Street Theatre, 901 Trinity
Through Aug. 19
Running time: 50 min.
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Austin Jewish Repertory Theater, Adina L. Ruskin, Adam Roberts, Michelle Alexander, Sarah Viskovich, Sarah Zeringue

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