When director Ludovica Villar-Hauser read She Calls Me Firefly, playwright Teresa Lotz’s mature vision of the human condition rang true for her. Indeed, the production currently at The Huron Club at The SoHo Playhouse until 23 June clarifies the nature of human pain for its protagonist. Lotz’s play focuses on a turning point in the life of Ken, a lost young man haunted by his past.
Lotz highlights many themes about human consciousness. She suggests that often individuals must live a life of compromise if they run from misery and torment. However, they can face their self-recriminations if they’re open to doing so, and with help may be able to correct the problems.
Of course, no road map exists for the human heart and consciousness. Thus, seekers cannot embark on their journey to the past lightly. Nor can they breach the barriers of consciousness to battle PTSD, for example, with comfort and happiness. The process of reconciliation grills the emotions and squeezes out dire memories. Lotz reveals that until Ken confronts critical events and finds their meaning, he will have no surcease for his pain and his attempts to escape it.
Ken (the accomplished Sean Hudock) arrives at Freddie’s Bar looking for solace in alcohol. Instead of drowning out the misery of his break-up with Levi (Daniel Burns is Hudock’s perfect foil), he comes to a life-affirming decision. Freddie, the bar owner (Paula Ewin), fortunately has a hearing ear and compelling heart. Ewin’s spot-on portrayal is lush with empathy and especially moves us at the play’s conclusion. In her laid-back bar in an atmosphere of quiet and comfort, Ken encounters the reality of his traumatic formative years. He relives by degrees his mother Veronica’s love, encouragement, and poetic sensibility. And he experiences the full horror of her suicide and the reason she believed it necessary. This confrontation with himself allows him to establish a new persona in the present with Levi.
Lotz chooses to have the characters breach the barriers of consciousness in Ken’s mind where much of the action occurs. His interactions with Freddie as she pours him drinks and queries him about his life remain in the present. But the playwright launches the past by breathing life into Ken’s memories. Although Veronica died in Texas 18 years before, Ken interacts with her in suspended time, tuning out Freddie and immersing himself in the distant past.
Ken also slips into the recent past by recalling events with Levi that have brought him to Freddie’s. Conversing with Freddie, he shifts back into encounters with Levi. We learn how they met and eventually became involved as he relives these interactions. In her delineation of Ken’s and Levi’s relationship, Lotz reveals how levels of memory impact each other. Memories form Ken’s realities and relationships. His memories of Veronica are as real to him as his own life. Indeed, memory drives Ken’s life. And his emotional memory impacts his decisions and interactions with others. Those memories not only haunt him, they spur on his addictions to alcohol and drugs, which become a coping mechanism he must overcome to move forward.
As his present interactions with Freddie, the recent past events with Levi, and his interactions with Veronica in the distant past combine, Ken’s portrait emerges. The revelation comes gradually. We anticipate the conclusion fearfully, hoping for the best.
Emily Batsford’s terrific, moving portrayal of Veronica establishes tension and fearful, confused longing. Hers is a steely, measured performance. She menaces surreptitiously with love and twisted longing. As we witness Ken’s merging into a six-year-old innocent to relive vital events, their powerful relationship and its direction downward takes over.
The playwright’s poetic symbols, especially the metaphors of fireflies and unicorn, meaningfully represent the mother/son relationship, establishing with particularity the unique beauty of the love between them. These symbols also foreshadow why Veronica chooses to make the decision against herself which Ken attempts to understand.
Lotz also employs the symbols to clarify the poignant terror of the traumatic events Ken experiences. Her tight writing serves the mother/son characterizations and the play’s themes with grace. Batsford and Hudock work beautifully together as they inexorably move toward the climax. After Ken slips back and forth between time periods the first few times, the scenes between the two engage with profound complexity and tension.
Villar-Hauser’s staging uses the bar and various areas to elucidate the distant past, the recent past, and the present. Her rendering works well. Because the playing area is indeed The Huron Club at SoHo Playhouse, turned into Freddie’s Bar, the actors must adjust to the audience being in their space. The ensemble appears to thrive on this. The moment-to-moment vitality in their ranges of emotion, their character conflicts, their felt devastation never falters.
As Ken’s evening forges slowly ahead toward dawn, we understand and hope he will receive expiation in his consciousness. Through the lenses of the past, he finds a way to perceive his relationship with Levi. By exorcising the demon memories that torment him, he begins to rid himself of his fear to love in a healthy way. Understanding the turmoil and confusion of his trauma, he recognizes his self-condemnation is unjust. Freddie’s great compassion reinforces this, as we learn of tragic events in her life, bringing Ken and Freddie closer. Through self-realization, Ken works his way toward sunrise to return to Levi, prompted by Freddie’s encouragement.
Often one’s unconscious explodes into the present, bearing past traumas in the hope of reconciliation and healing. Lotz attempts to realize this in her strong, heartfelt drama. Her attempt is noteworthy, and the exceptional talents of a powerful ensemble with precise, empathetic direction more than bring the production to life. They allow its complexity to soar. Without this cast and director, who ironed out the potential problems with characterization, the production would have been less memorable, less dynamic, less authentic. And the artificiality of Ken’s confronting his past in one evening when it oftentimes takes years, becomes acceptable as a representational experience through which we may empathize and learn.
Finally, kudos go to Meganne George (Production Design), Deborah Constantine (Lighting Design), Janie Bullard (Sound Design), and the rest of the team at Parity Productions and New Perspectives Theatre Company who presented this work.
She Calls Me Firefly runs with no intermission at The Huron Club, The SoHo Playhouse (15 Vandam Street), until 23 June at 7:30 PM on Mondays and on Wednesdays through Saturdays. Tickets may be purchased at SoHoPlayhouse.com