Lethe and Other Summer Memories
Yesterday was a different kind of memorable day, a day spent in San Francisco with my mother. She is one of the few people I know who get caught up in the journey as much in the destination. So while we enjoyed the new De Young Museum, the walk in Golden Gate Park was perhaps even more spectacular. It was one of those rare San Francisco summer days; the weather a warm 65 degrees, the sky a brilliant blue, enough breeze to carry the scent of flowers and herbs, and the sun creating a paint box of color on leaves, bushes, trees and flowers.
Our real purpose for the trip, however, was to see the Cornerstone Theater production of Lethe. I had discovered this theater company a year ago with the production of “Boda de Luna Nueva” (New Moon Wedding), a contemporary adaptation of García Lorca’s “Blood Wedding”.
And so they do. For “Boda de Luna Nueva”, the company selected the tiny, farm town of Grayson in west Stanislaus County. They brought in a company of professional actors and students in their summer residency program and then recruited locals of all ages from Grayson and the surrounding communities to develop and act in the play. In adapting the play to time and place, they first researched the community. So, for example, instead of the wheat harvest in “Bodas de Sangre”, “Boda de Luna Nueva” showcased the tomato and apricot harvest. “Death” was played by a woman pushing a “paletera” cart and selling drugs instead of ice cream and popsicles. The Greek chorus of “Woodcutters” was replaced by a chorus of “Tomato Pickers” and Leonardo escaped with the bride not on horseback but in his pick-up. The play was performed at the edge of an open field and the audience sat in bleachers. Beyond the stage setting one could see the field, the highway and orchards beyond, and as the play progressed, the sun setting beyond the western hills. “La luna” (The Moon) appeared not on stage, but from the distant field beyond, back lit so she was initially just a white sphere moving ever toward us. The play was amazing; a magical moment in time.
"Cornerstone Theater Company is a multi-ethnic, ensemble-based theater company. We commission and produce new plays, both original works and contemporary adaptations of classics, which combine the artistry of professional and community collaborators. By making theater with and for people of many ages, cultures and levels of theatrical experience, Cornerstone builds bridges between and within diverse communities in our home city of Los Angeles and nationwide." http://www.cornerstonetheater.org/who_mainpage.html
There are moments and experiences I would like to bottle, in order to capture their essence. “Boda de Luna Nueva" was one of those. “Lethe” was another.
Lethe, taken from the Greek myths, is one of the rivers in Hades. New souls arriving in Hades drink from this River of Oblivion in order to forget their earthly existence, in preparation for their new home.
The play, “Lethe”, written by Octavio Solís, takes place at a Senior Home, modeled after the On Lok Institute on Aging. The actors include some professionals (including one 95 year old), students in the summer residency program, as well as first-time actors who in their other lives work or volunteer with the elderly. One story line focuses on a resident whose husband died a year ago, her son, who has not been able to deal with his father´s death, and the developing romance between the mother and another resident. Another story line highlights a filipina woman with Alzheimers (in her words, the Aswang or vampires, are stealing her memories while she sleeps) and her relationship with a young professional filipina volunteer. Both the son and the young woman are carrying around the ghosts of their parents, for whom they were caregivers. The ghosts will not leave them until the living are able to deal with
unresolved issues with their parents. Framing all this are three choruses: the Onstage Senior Chorus, the Caregiver Chorus and the Lethe Gesture chorus.
As in any good play, the acting and music were outstanding and there
were many moments to laugh and cry. What is memorable (!) about Lethe, however, was its truth. The setting really was a Senior Center and the people really were health care professionals, volunteers and residents. My mother recognized the truth in these actors and she knows; she is a volunteer in such a setting. The son accurately represented the dilemma of caregivers caught between the selfless task set upon them and their own lives. The resolution for the filipina Alzheimer patient and the young volunteer required the older woman to deal with her loss of memory but also for the younger woman to reclaim cultural and family memories she never had.
The playwright, accurately sums up Cornestone’s magic:
"Over the rehearsal period, there have been many times that our efforts
in rehearsal have been trumped by the sudden insertion of Real Life into the process. Someone will stop and abruptly tell a deeply moving personal account or explain something about hospice work relevant to our scene or simply misspeak a line of text in a way that reveals an utter fact of life previously ignored. While in other instances with other theatres, this might be scorned as frustrating interruption into the
artistic process, at Cornerstone, Real Life is the process... Our community
participants are not just the resource, they are the authority. Our elders carry the history of our culture inside them, ways of life that come and go like tides, momentous days and days of no consequence laced together by memory, fragile and
ephemeral. And our caregivers carry inside them the hours of constant selflessness,
weighing against their own personal wants the need to help others through the straits of illness and age. And through it all is love. If I discovered anything about these communities it is that they are built entirely on love." --Octavio Solís