Review: In "What You Are Now," Memory Is a Dangerous Thing

Trying to understand the past lives of our parents can feel like digging in the dark, especially for children of immigrants. Memories a...


Trying to understand the past lives of our parents can feel like digging in the dark, especially for children of immigrants. Memories are selective and many people have experienced things they would rather forget. The challenge – and the heartbreak – of bridging that chasm is the subject of ‘What You Are Now’, a touching study of memory and migration by playwright Sam Chanse which opened Thursday evening at the Studio Theater Ensemble in Manhattan.

Pia (Pisay Pao) knows next to nothing about her mother’s experience of fleeing Cambodia in 1975, amid the country’s deadly Khmer Rouge takeover. But the pain of her mother’s experience shaped Pia’s life, like an imprint, she says, carved into her cells. That’s why Pia pursues neurological research, looking for a scientific solution to her mother’s mental suffering.

Pia’s mother (Sonnie Brown) behaves like a ghost, looking lost behind her eyes and fiercely resisting any reminder of Cambodia. She also kept her distance from Pia and her brother Darany (Robert Lee Leng), whom she raised alone in a small town in Massachusetts. (The height of their mother’s physical affection is a stiff pat on the shoulder.) If Pia can’t enter or quiet her mother’s spirit, she channels that desire into studying the brain.

Chanse’s play goes back and forth over a 10-year period in Pia’s study of memory and its manipulative potential. When she talks to her mother on the phone from the lab, their conversations are limited to the mundane, like what’s for dinner and how Pia’s career is progressing. But when Darany’s ex-girlfriend (Emma Kikue) comes to collect testimonies for a non-profit organization from Khmer Rouge survivors, Pia mother refuses to talk about the past.

“What You Are Now” is not propelled by incidents or dramatic actions, but ideas about the workings of the mind and the gradual revealing of personal stories. Pia dates and breaks up with a colleague (Curran Connor) with whom she cleans rat cages. Darany and his half-white girlfriend smoke pot and swap stories about how they relate to their shared Cambodian heritage. Pia’s mother gets carried away when she sees her children dancing to Cambodian rock.

As Pia, Pao is prickly and guarded, observing and responding to her mother’s behavior with the calm a scientist might keep to her subject. As his cold (and much cooler) older brother, Leng creates a loose and grounded contrast, all in street slang and with a curious heart. And Brown is quietly gripping as a woman who is both fragile and imperious, slouched as a comma but with a will of steel.

Directed by Civilians art director Steve Cosson, the cleverly minimal production unfolds against a cool gray monochromatic interior, like a cleaned slate. Frames that could display family portraits are empty, and what could be a wall clock has no time marks (set design is by Riw Rakkulchon). Figures appear isolated in the dark, as they remotely connect to the phone or retreat to their own perspectives (lighting design is by Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew).

Pia explores whether it is possible to alter what we remember and the relationship of memory to identity, delving into empirical study rather than digging and sifting through emotions. The play perhaps includes too many descriptions of real experiences, the dramatic potential of which is limited.

But “What You Are Now” excels at unforced revelations about the human struggle to connect and to share the messy and sometimes painful stories that make us who we are. Everything we hear and experience, and how we remember it, reshapes our brains, says Pia. It’s scientific testimony to the power of storytelling to change mindsets.

what you are now
Through April 3 at Ensemble Studio Theatre, Manhattan; ensemblestudiotheatre.org. Duration: 1h40.

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