Preview: Meryl Sands’ Honors Directing Thesis, Unstuck

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Grieving is as much about imagination as it is about memory. Our construction of the past is based on our perceptions of events and we activate our imagination to create what we believed happened. We can all remember the first time we came in close contact with death and the confusion that ensues as our minds try to understand what death means. Our imagination aids us through this transition process to move on from denial into acceptance. Meryl Sands’ Honors Directing thesis explores what it looks like to be stuck in that transition process, and  it crafts a candid portrayal of the immobility of grieving. More than that, Unstuck is about the struggle of inhabiting a liminal space.

Too scared to deal with his sister’s death, Foster (Sam Swift Shuker-Haines ’14) moves to the attic of his house where he attempts to reconstruct  his sister, Sophie (Christina Aruffo ’14), out of his memories. One day, he succeeds and the siblings are reunited. But when Foster’s ex-boyfriend, Simon (Josh McLucas ’15), enters the picture, Sophie’s blissful existence becomes threatened. “Simon reminds Foster that imagination can only take you so far,” says McLucas. “Foster realizes that reality is the ultimate comfort.”

Filled with doubt about whether Sophie is real or just a coping mechanism, Foster leaves. Sophie, physically trapped in the attic as a 17-year old, is forced into five years of neglected existence. When a new family moves into the house, three teenagers – David (Benjamin Books Schwartz ’13), Micah (Josh McLucas ’15) and Marika (Amelia Dornbush ’15) – venture into the attic and meet Sophie, forcing the audience to reconsider and question Sophie’s existence.

Aided by clever set design (Matt Saunders), Sands has created a dynamic staging that includes shadows which allow Sophie to quickly materialize in and out the space and further add to her mystical aura. Sands plays with our perceptions of reality by implying that our imagination is capable of the creation of actual human beings. “Sophie is real,” says Sands, “she’s not the same as a human being but Foster has made something real in that attic.” Inspired by aspects of magical realism and Borges’ fantastical literature, Sands has made the incomprehensible phenomena have the same status as reality.

Sophie’s creation and her interaction with Foster reflect the experience of deep attachment people face when they lose a loved one. Almost any sensorial experience triggers a memory that materializes them before your eyes.  Drawing from her own personal experience with mourning, Sands wanted her piece to physically embody that magical thinking that occurs when someone dies because “you don’t just dream up a person without a valid reason,” she says.

Sophie is a physical representation of the immobility that plagues those who are in transition. Foster is unable to move past his grief; the teenagers, at 17 years of age, are feeling trapped in their hometown, stuck between their dreams and aspirations and their perceptions of what it means to become an adult. Throughout the play we witness these characters that are on the brink of change. They are looking for any justification to remain the same because what is next is unknown, because becoming unstuck is scary.

We dissect and deconstruct the past in hopes of understandingand maybe justifying, the sometimes illogical and chaotic circumstances in which we find ourselves. The characters of Unstuck are trying to grapple with the reality of what it means to become “unstuck,” to let go and to move forward. The play poses the question of “How do we remember and celebrate those who lived without getting trapped in the labyrinth of nostalgia?” It attempts to answer by revealing to us that memory is a fragile mechanism and that in order to remember productively, we must allow ourselves, sometimes, to forget.

Unstuck will be performed Friday at 9 p.m., Saturday at 2 p.m and 9 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m. in the Lang Performing Arts Center’s Frear Ensemble Theater. The performances are free and open to the public.  

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