By Daniel Skora
We are defined by our stories. Libraries are filled with books that tell true stories, made up stories, and made-up stories based on true stories. Even the books in the reference sections tell their own kind of stories, about how numbers work, the universe functions, and life around us evolves. Some stories can be too painful to tell.
The Open Book Theatre is presenting “Calypso’s Corner”, a play about two sisters who share a frightening past. Rachel (Krista Schafer Ewbank) and Leah (Diana Turner) both carry the scars of an abusive childhood. Their mother, who was a holocaust survivor, was never able to put what she saw in the camps into some kind of manageable perspective. She became, instead, as cruel to her children as her captors had been to her.
The mother, who never appears in the play, has since died and the two sisters are now grown and living on their own. Rachel has opened a bookstore, the “Calypso’s Corner” of the title and the setting for the majority of the play. There seems to be an implicit agreement between the two never to speak of their painful past, so when Rachel reveals to Leah that she has shared their story with her fiancé, the bond that has kept them together becomes irreparably broken. To Leah, revealing their past to an outsider is an unforgivable act.
Emily Rosenbaum’s play is first and foremost an absorbing story about how different individuals handle emotional pain. When properly dealt with, as in Rachel’s case, it can be a source of greater strength. When suppressed, as in Leah’s case, it can fester, affecting family members in the process. Others in the play who have been affected to one degree or another by the sisters’ past include Leah’s daughter Wendy (Jenna Hinton), Rachel’s husband Allen (Dave Davies), and her son Michael (Stebert Davenport). Leah has kept her daughter away from her sister’s family all these years, so when Wendy shows up one day at the book store, which Michael now runs with his father, he is taken by surprise. It’s that meeting between the two cousins that initiates what appears to be a second plotline. Wendy has inherited the cancer-causing gene which killed her grandmother and was passed on to Rachel, who is her aunt and Michael’s mother. She needs help in dealing not only with her illness, but the anticipated arrival of a child. Because she has reached out to Rachel’s family, she now finds herself estranged from her own mother. How her illness plays out and how her “other” family supports her is what much of the rest of the story is about.
“Calypso’s Corner” is not linear, repeatedly moving back and forth through time. Characters appear then disappear, only to reappear again later. It takes a while to get used to the format, but when it’s absorbed, it adds an enjoyable texture to the play’s movement. To serve as a guide for the audience, the year in which each scene takes place appears in the upper right hand corner of the back wall of the stage.
A play that takes place in a bookstore would be otherwise untrue to its setting if it weren’t also about books. Rosenbaum pays homage to several of the authors whose writings line the store’s shelves. Tolstoy, E.B. White, Shakespeare, and Joyce are among those whose works are noted. Unlikely but true, a Joyce book and an iconic female movie star appear together on a poster hanging in the bookstore. The star is Marilyn Monroe, and as she sits outdoors in her bathing suit enjoying a sunny afternoon, a copy of “Ulysses” rests comfortably in her hands. If a picture can be worth a thousand words, this picture is truly worthy of every one of them.
A random observation that couldn’t go unnoted: the “six degrees of separation” is alive and well in the relationship between James Joyce, the show’s title, and the venue where “Calypso’s Corner” is being performed. Joyce’s great novel is “Ulysses”. “Ulysses” is the Latinized version of “Odysseus”, who is the hero of Homer’s epic poem, “The “Odyssey”. “The Odyssey” contains a character named Calypso, a Greek nymph who kept Ulysses captive. Because Calypso wished to marry Ulysses, she had to prevent him from returning to his wife. His wife’s name is Penelope, as in Penelope’s Vintage Resale, the place where the Open Book currently performs its shows. Small world isn’t it.
“Calypso’s Corner” is an admirable first outing for playwright Rosenbaum. She certainly covers a lot of territory and on first reflection, seems to have crafted two plotlines that don’t easily mesh. On further reflection, Leah’s rejection of Rachel and Wendy’s illness caused by the inherited gene are part of the same theme: both are deadly forces passed down from one generation to the other, the one physical and the other emotional. The play is not about Rachel and Leah, or Wendy and Michael, or Allen. It’s about all of them collectively, branches of the same family tree whose gnarled roots grow deep.
“Calypso’s Corner” is directed by Angie Kane Ferrante. The show runs through May 21st. Tickets are available by calling 1.734.288.7753 or going online at www.openbooktc.com. This last show of the Open Book Theatre Company’s 2015/16 season will be their final production at Penelope’s Place, in the room in back of the antique and resale shop which is located at 12219 Dix Toledo Road in Southgate. In September they will open with the first of their five shows of the 2016/17 season at their new home in Trenton.