Review: 'Together We Are Making a Poem in Honor of Life' examines memory and loss / by Jerald Pierce

There’s something unsettling about Dean Poynor’s “Together We Are Making a Poem in Honor of Life.”

The play explores what happens when memories threaten to fade after Brian (played by Poynor) and his wife Rebecca (played by Monica Wyche) lose their child in a school shooting. The two-person show takes place during a support group meeting, where participants sit in a circle of chairs. It’s very intimate.

But what’s unsettling isn’t the subject matter. The audience is seated within the circle, sporadic chairs intentionally saved for the play’s two actors to use. The audience becomes members of the support group. However, as the couple works through their issues, occasionally fighting with each other, the lack of a fourth wall between the actors and their audience becomes disconcerting. There’s a trust that support groups have earned with each other, a trust that feels wrong easily handed to an audience.

The couple tries to ease this awkwardness by continually referring to their audience as their support group friends, who know the couple well enough that witnessing them fight is inconsequential. Still, the result feels like a first double date with a couple who, during dinner, come dangerously close to divorce.

A barrier develops between the audience and the couple, seen clearly in the play’s comedy. Early on, Brian cracks a joke in the meeting. It lands awkwardly, with audience members uncertain whether it’s appropriate to laugh.

One of the play’s gems is the staging of director Anne Kelly Tromsness. She has Wyche and Poynor spend most of the play sitting apart or standing opposite each other outside of the circle. The cleverly crafted distance physically shows the uneasy separation that has entered the couple’s relationship.

Another particularly powerful moment comes when Rebecca, struggling to remember her son, asks Brian for help. At her request, he talks with her, not as himself, but as the son they lost. At first, he speaks as an imagined older version of the son, concerned with relationships. But Rebecca needs to interact with a younger version. Brian, still acting as their son, slips from speaking about love to discussing school.

This simple scene, one in which the group seems to fade away, offers an unobstructed view into how these characters are truly coping.

The trouble is, rare gems like this come late in this 70-minute play. The play treats the exposition as secondary, wanting to focus instead on the characters. Unfortunately, to fully enjoy the emotional evolution of these characters, some grasp of their backstory is crucial. It’s a flaw the most empathetic in the audience can likely accept.

The play’s first half is spent piecing together what is happening on stage. The passage of time is hard to track and when the play takes a swing at the gun control issue at large, as surely is its right, it loses the personal connection to Brian and Rebecca’s story.

The theatrical conceits of the play—that support group circle—prevent the audience from experiencing Brian and Rebecca’s full emotional turmoil. But as the play reaches its emotional end, one look into Poynor's and Wyche’s eyes shows just how acutely their characters' pain is felt.

This article was written for The Post and Courier's Spoleto Festival coverage.