Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M.

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Saturday April 21, 2012

’Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M.’ continues through May 13 at Central Square Theater
’Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M.’ continues through May 13 at Central Square Theater  

The human brain may be the ultimate black box, and of late it's a topic that's been somewhat on the Boston theater scene's collective mind.

"How does meat become mind?" mused a character in "On Ego," a recent production by The Science Fiction Theater Company. "On Ego" addresses the conundrum of whether identity is tied to a continuous, discreet existence or whether it might be merely a matter of looking a certain way, recalling certain memories, and carrying out a set of actions--in which case the individual, in the traditional sense, is less important than the specific and unique role each individual fills in the course of history and the fabric of society.

"On Ego" is a sci-fi meditation on the metaphysical meaning of a future innovation (the teleporter), but "Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M.," at the Central Square Theater, is a science-themed slice of neurological medicine's history. Still, that haunting question--what makes a person's mind what it is; what makes us, and what, objectively speaking, does that really mean?--informs the play, which was written and directed by the prolific Wesley Savick (who also authored the book and lyrics for Central Square Theatre's next production, "Car Talk: The Musical!!!").

H.M. was a real person. The initials stand for Henry Molaison. Henry suffered from debilitating epilepsy and, in 1953, when he was 27 years old, he underwent a daring new surgical technique to address the problem of his frequent, intense seizures. The operation was a success insofar as Henry's epilepsy became much less severe, but because parts of his brain linked to memory had been removed, the procedure left him unable to form new memories. Henry lived in an endless present moment, each experience and conversation fading away after just a few minutes.

Savick's play explores this with poignancy and humor. Henry (Barlow Adamson) is subjected to a battery of questions by various doctors (an ensemble played by Steven Barkhimer, Anna Kohler, and Debra Wise). As written and staged by Savick, the repetitious inquiries ("Do you have trouble remembering things? Why do you think that might be?") is offset by a continual, and literal, shift in Henry's perspective: He sits in a chair atop a revolving platform. The doctors take turns spinning him one way and another.

That is but one example of the play's highly metaphorical approach; other examples include the large white box (standing in for the brain's essential black box nature) that the doctors examine with stethoscopes and magnifying glasses, the array of small flickering lights that hang from the ceiling and spark in random patterns (illustrating the disordered firing of Henry's pre-operative neural network), and the play's score, a mishmash of recognizable classical pieces that emerge, transform, and subside into an ever-shifting musical landscape. (Pianist Tae Kim creates a sonic nebula, a sort of dream made of music, that sets an appropriate mood. Kudos all around to scenic designer Justin Townsend, lighting designer Jeff Adelberg, and composer / sound designer Tod Machover, whose efforts help turn this quite heady play into a visceral experience.)

This sort of amnesia--a continual erasure of experience--is enough to send chills of dread down the spine, but this is not a story of misery and disorientation so much as one of continual rediscovery. Henry was an intelligent man, and the play suggests that he brought a clarity of thinking to the issue, working out the meaning of such simple things as his own clothing (somewhat worn, comfortable, casual: well then, this must be his own wardrobe) with much the same calm, methodical sort of reasoning that he brought to crossword puzzles. Clearly, not being able to recall a conversation he had six minutes earlier did not mean that Henry's IQ had diminished.

His condition also helped to clarify the different sorts of memory that the brain creates and organizes. Though he was not able to create new memories of specific episodes in his life ("declarative memory"), Henry did exhibit the ability to learn new skills; he even formed a general conclusion about his own medical status, recognizing that his memory was deficient and tying that fact to the surgery. Henry was not resentful or bitter about this, perhaps in part because he was literally unable to hang on to any such feelings. His attitude, expressed aloud to the doctors and MIT-affiliated scientists who studied him for the next five decades, until his death in 2008, was that he was okay with the result of the surgical procedure as long as it meant that others might be helped.

Philosophers have suggested that the most rewarding way to live is in the present moment. For Henry, that was literally true, and there is even a philosophical undercurrent to his existence in a perpetual present moment; he would often say, "I am having an argument with myself" over one question or another. It all rises a fascinating, if troubling, question: Does the so-call "persistence of memory" short-circuit us in ways we cannot appreciate? Would the human animal be happier if not saddled with a growing catalogue of past hurts, joys, triumphs, and disappointments against which to measure the present day?

Milan Kundera suggested, in "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," that the terror of death is nothing more than the terror of forgetting; in other words, who we are is tied up with what we remember. But as years pass and Henry is asked, over and over again, "What would you say if I told you that you are... 36? 42? 57? 75?" his simple, placid response remains the same: This man, for whom time stands still at the age of 27, merely says, "Okay."

That's the sense we get of H.M. in this dramatized recollection of him: That despite a situation that many of us might find horrific to contemplate, he was just fine. Perhaps one constructive approach to the emotionally and intellectually fraught fact of a perpetually accumulating personal past is to learn how to let it go.

"Yesterday Happened: Remembering H.M." is a production of Catalyst [email protected]. The play continues through May 13 at Central Square Theatre, located at 450 Massachusetts Avenue, in Central Square, Cambridge.

Tickets may be obtained online at CentralSquareTheater.org or via phone at 866-811-4111. Group rates and other information is available by calling 617-576-9278, extension 210.

Performance schedule: Wednesday and Thursday evenings at 7:30; Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00; Saturday afternoons at 3:00; and Sunday afternoons at 2:00.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.