Review of Memorial at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre
by Debbie Wiess
Boston Playwrights' Theatre (BPT) kicks off its 2016/2017 season with the play Memorial by Livian Yeh. This historically-based play is about the recognition and push-back that Maya Lin received after it was announced that her unconventional design was selected for the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial planned to be added to the National Mall in Washington, DC in 1981. I remember that controversy which was often quite bitter and heated, and looked forward to seeing this play about it. I happen to particularly enjoy historical pieces. I was not disappointed. Whether one has any knowledge of that time and the events or has a particular bent for historical pieces, there is nevertheless much to appreciate in the play.
There were many reasons for people to take exception to Maya Lin's being awarded the project. Her design was unlike any memorial that had been built previously. It was very modern, stark, consisting of slabs of black marble that would list every US service man and woman who lost their life in the Vietnam War, and was to be set in a great cut in the ground. Lin is also Chinese-American and at that time was a 21 year old student at Yale's School of Architecture. Her young age, lack of experience or what would be considered "street cred" today, gender and Asian roots were all made into issues as well.
Although the events depicted are from 35 years ago the play still felt very current and relevant. That is due to the strong writing and smart language, as well as fine direction by Kelly Galvin and acting. Everything comes together very nicely to tell the story in a lively intriguing way.
The set is dominated by a modern open metal structure used as a backdrop. There is a minimalism in the decor and props that help to evoke the feeling of the memorial. The metal structure is fixed and formidable, however it also has curves and a transparency that seems to offer the hope of resolution. It provides interesting pathways through and around itself for the actors to enter and exit. The action is a constant ebb and flow on stage as the actors move on and off from one scene to the next. The whole thing has a very modern stylized feel. Occasionally a couple of the characters come on stage for a brief moment without dialogue; this was confusing and was one of the rare missteps.
The project is clearly well-researched, but this is not a documentary. Much has been simplified for the ease of the recounting and for dramatic purpose. What we see is an encapsulation and it is a very effective and affecting short-hand of what played out. The story is told in 90 minutes and there is no intermission.
The various sides of the controversy are expressed, but to facilitate things (and keep the cast to a tight group of five) they are represented in a single character Colonel Becker. This military officer who has the role of being the big naysayer could have been a cliche and easily demonized. But he retains his humanity and we can understand his side of things. The play maintains a nice balance in fact as the differences between the parties are expressed and Lin tries to overcome the issues that are brought up against her.
In the end, all is resolved as we know since Lin's beautiful, innovative design can be seen today on the Mall. What may be extremely controversial at first, like Paris' Eiffel Tower, later become iconic symbols and beloved national treasures. The effect of Lin's striking monument is profound and moving, and so is Yeh's play.
This is the first in a rich season of six plays put on by the BPT. Five of them are new plays written by Boston University MFA Playwrighting Program class of 2017 students. The focus on new plays is part of BU's College of Fine Arts commitment the the School of Theatre's effort to cultivate and develop new work. Next up is Faithless by Andrew Joseph Clarke. But before that be sure to see Memorial!