The music, if it could be called music, pounded rhythmically like the heart of a terrible metallic behemoth. The hat, a beige stetson, was for a moment the only thing lit on the stage before the lights were completely extinguished to the sound of a crash, like the same huge beast falling. This was the ominous beginning to Todd Lepre's unsettling The Hat Left Behind. The setting was a nursing home populated by a wheelchair-bound gentleman (John Tormey), a doped-up lady called the Queen (Ruth Kulerman) because of her imperious manner, a dying, unseen patient, a fresh-faced volunteer (Jane Needleman), and an orderly (Reginald Veneziano). Their routine was interrupted by the arrival of an aggressive reporter who made everyone aware of their isolation -- and he made the Queen disgorge her most painful memories and regrets.
The acting was riveting. Kulerman's Queen was charming, flirtatious, and autocratic by turns; the orderly served her meds like a footman serving high tea. During hallucinatory scenes she remembered her brutal father (also played by Tormey), her fractured adolescence, and her dead son, to whom she was as bad a parent as her father was to her. Though stout, she was a tiny woman, with tiny feet tucked into embroidered slippers that reminded one of the bound feet of a Chinese concubine, and her life had been just as stunted; during her medicated spells Kulerman's face became a mask of zonked-out unhappiness. Tormey's gentleman had arrived at the ghastly state where he was lucid enough to know that his mind was fading, but he was determined to hold on to the last wisp of dignity and hope. His stetson, left in a bar long ago, was emblematic of everything that he'd lost and will lose: his family, the use of his legs, his memories, and inevitably his life in this rundown nursing home. Veneziano's orderly tried valiantly to protect his patients from both the interloping reporter and their own deterioration, and Needleman's volunteer's cheerfulness darkened as she realized she couldn't bear the bruising of her heart that will attend the death of the patients she cared for. Matthew Benjamin's oily reporter, though he kept the old man company during poker games, went along with playing the addled Queen's dead son only to get his story.
Lepre's writing was superb in the way it wove together the character's unreliable memories and their terror and rage against their present situation. Amy Christie kept the light harsh during the nursing-home scenes but dimmed it during the memory scenes. Occasionally a face or a corner would be spotlit, then allowed to lapse into darkness, like corners of the inmates' minds. The costumes were appropriate, down to the old man's natty suit and the Queen's faded draperies. Christie's decor was appropriately shabby. The Queen's domain was a platform covered with a faux-Oriental rug, an armchair, a table with shelves for out-of-print books, a 1950s kitchen chair, and a bed shrouded by mosquito netting like something out of Tennessee Williams -- indeed, Williams could have had a field day with this material. The techno bangs and whimpers of Christie's sound design were bridged by classical music, as if juxtaposing the terrible here and now against an idealized past. The music was supported by the rattle of the medicine cart, the offstage coughs of the dying woman, and a silence that reminded the inmates of their intolerable loneliness.
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Copyright 2001 Arlene McKanic