Life is best understood sideways, and preferably not by the person who’s lived it. The shape that playwright Edward Einhorn’s family history takes is wound around the points of view of relatives, strangers, secondhand authorities and individual people’s younger and older selves, in his play Doctors Jane and Alexander. In the scrapbook of the play’s structure, we meet Einhorn’s grandfather, Alexander S. Wiener, who discovered the Rh factor in blood; Jane Einhorn, Edward’s mother and a promising research psychologist with work unfinished due to depression early in her career and a life sidelined by a stroke at age 68; and colleagues and family members who knew a different Jane and Alexander each at different stages of their lives.
The play grew out of interviews Edward taped with Jane after her stroke in 2005; a gifted nonprofessional painter and a formidable intellect, her insights and observations remain deep and creative, and the shifting thought-sequence of dementia is much truer to the picture Edward is trying to piece together than the linear methods of conventional historical inquiry. Jane tells him that she preferred art to psychology, “because I didn’t have to rely on reality”; a colleague of Weiner’s whom Edward seeks out says of her lab partner, “He could see beyond the obvious. He could sort of connect things — to what is known, go past that, to what isn’t known…” — the essence of the lateral leaps that both concrete and philosophical understanding call for, though a talent one suspects Weiner did not recognize in himself.
This perceived gap between art and science might be one source of the distance Jane describes always having felt from her father; or as she puts it in a dialogue with him (the old man writing a letter to her when she was in college; the present-day Jane answering to the air and his phantom), “You measured things in terms of accomplishment. And you felt I could accomplish a lot. But I wanted you to measure things in terms of love.”
As that exchange implies, we the audience follow Jane on her slides across time. The afterimages of those who have made an impression on her life linger onstage throughout; we have seen Weiner at his piano (he was also an amateur songwriter) since before the play officially started, and he is first acknowledged when Edward points to him, telling Jane’s health-aid, “That’s a painting of my grandfather, over there” — a deft and inventive breaching of the veils of reality. Significantly, Jane thinks she painted the portrait; she’s blurring it with the many others on the walls of the set that she did paint, and in any case, all these years later, Edward is left to delineate them both.
The unreliability of the enterprise is embedded in the text with rigorous honesty and existential slapstick; at one point Weiner recites from, as he himself puts it, “a journal of Alexander S. Weiner, as yet not found.” Edward does not play himself, and the distance allows him regret for the relative amount of time he and his brother David spend with their mom at her facility, and his array of self-doubts and uncertainty about his contribution to the world and fidelity to family.
“Everything’s a clue,” Edward tells David when he takes exception to what he feels is an embarrassing detail about their mom that’s not relevant to the play; and Edward knows that the telling details his tape and memory pick up can all be clues to truths that slip between the lines and beyond the author’s control. Jane’s research had involved theories about how children’s cheating at games is less a matter of morality that develops with age, than it is of affinities that form among friends; when Edward explains to David that “I get most of what [Jane] says, I just…select sometimes. And fill in, when I miss something,” David answers, “You mean, you cheat” — but this is a form of cheating that comes forth from Edward’s affinity for, not competitiveness with, his mom; the clues that surface in the texts and dialogue are his art and his intuitive science. Or as Weiner’s colleague Dr. Laura Wedeck says, as a professor she preferred using the language of his Rh studies to a later nomenclature, because “you had more variability.”
Weiner’s shadow falls far, and an elusive sense of stability and search for approval runs through the bloodstream of this play. Weiner seems to have suffered from mania, and Jane from debilitating depression; at the end of that letter he’s writing to her in college, the way the word “Love” forces its way out before “Dad” in his closing tells a whole life-story of distances imperfectly crossed.
That line is one of the many inspirations of Len Rella as Weiner; his modulation between template midcentury father-figure, confident scientific sage, and ranting crank letter-writer is startling and elegant. My own mom was most proficient on piano in her manic episodes, and the song-and-dance numbers the cast occasionally bursts into — each built around Weiner’s compositions, in all their absurdity and vigor — are entirely realistic to anyone with this illness in their family. These swerves of reality and their spectrum of emotional texture and pop-culture reference are an achievement that could only come from the mind of choreographer Patrice Miller; at all times in fact, motion, across a single set but often from one decade to another, and the physical attitude that conveys varied states of being, is essential to the storytelling of this play.
As Jane, in a role she’s been playing for more than a decade in different incarnations of the piece, Alyssa Simon gives the signature performance in a consistently exceptional body of work. Her vocabulary of mannerisms and tones of mood, her verité eccentricities and dignified will and courageous fragility, her loopy humor and steadfast love, paint a portrait of each dimension of Jane’s mind and every phase of her life, some of which is visible to us, and all of which Simon makes us know is there.
As Jane’s composite caregiver, “Rose,” as well as one of her young students and other incidental roles, Ann Marie Yoo is an electric presence with a versatile palette of personalities; as Dr. Wedeck, Edward’s cousin Sophie, and other roles, Yvonne Roen once again shows her ability and readiness to assume any identity at a moment’s notice and with brash humor or heartbreaking depth; in a range of overconfident male-authority roles (pompous doctor, smartass reporter, etc.), Craig Anderson shows his trademark comic touch and deeper empathy. Maxwell Zener is a humanely observed decent guy and family straightman as David; and Max Wolkowitz well carries the weight of being the writer’s doppelganger, in all his earnest goodwill and nebbishy unsureness, as “Edward.”
Though it’s too moving to describe without your seeing it yourself, the play ends in a quietly fantastic scene of unachievable but idyllic reunion, followed by a few lingering moments of life’s empty canvas waiting to be completed. In gathering the scraps of what maybe was and might have been, Einhorn has shaped his life into his masterpiece.
The current run continues through Feb. 15, 2020, details here.
Photos 1, 3, 5 and 6 above: Arthur Cornelius; photos 2 and 4: Jim Moore