by Erin Layton · January 19, 2014
Playwrights on New Plays #34 Erin Layton looks at Have I No Mouth Feidlim Cannon and his mother, Ann Cannon are real people. They aren’t characters in a play. Neither is their psychotherapist, Erich Keller who is also featured as himself in the U.S. Premiere of HAVE I NO MOUTH, an autobiographical story of Feidlim’s life by Dublin based theatre company, Brokentalkers - of which he is also the company director - presented by Irish Arts Center and currently playing at the Baryshnikov Arts Center as part of PS 122’s innovative COIL Festival 2014.
Upon my arrival to the theatre, a kind usher warmly greets me with a playbill and a balloon. Roy Orbison’s greatest hits for that flavor of old rock n’ roll stock that triggers both a sense of nostalgia and sadness streams in through the speakers above our heads. The stage is simple, almost enveloped, in the beautifully vast and expansive Jerome Robbins Theater with the exception of a handful of strategically placed objects - a microphone, an old telephone, a glass (half full or half empty) of water, a cardboard box and a highchair - to name a few. Some of these objects and the sounds of the environment resemble something akin to what you might find or hear in your childhood home if you could travel back in time.
When the lights come up and the “actors” arrive, the audience is thrust into a live therapy session and we are cast as both the spectators and the participants inside Feidlim and Ann’s shared history which include a chaotic blend of dysfunction, deep loss and healing. Throughout their story, we are frequently addressed directly by Feidlim as he leads us through his journey of self-discovery traced from childhood to adulthood. The psychotherapist, Keller frequently invites us to participate in different therapy exercises involving preparation, release and ritual. And Ann quietly draws us into her own intimate process of grief and understanding.
Ultimately, Feidlim and Ann are on stage because they want resolution.
Feidlim’s father, Ann’s husband, died from a misdiagnosed medical condition in 2001 that left mother and son with unanswered questions, legal and financial turmoil and a multitude of memories that can never be fully experienced or retrieved without a great deal of pain. But most of all, Feidlim and Ann are left to address their relationship with one another and they need our help. As their story unfolds and we catch visual glimpses into their private family history with the aid of smart video design by Kilian Waters, so does the dysfunctional relationship between mother and son including feuds over significant details of their past that aren’t entirely pieced together and rarely, if ever, agreed upon.
Although these exchanges between Feidlim and Ann are touchingly poignant and honest, the more stimulating moments happen in the played out scenes of their very real history sensitively executed and staged by directors Cannon and Gary Keegan. When Keller assumes the role of the deceased father and husband, donned in a suit, disguised face and flashcards of words that he (the deceased) had once spoken, we step inside a day in the life of the Cannon home richly decorated for the Christmas holiday. Mother, father and children are seated at the dining room table in vibrant paper crowns. It’s a pleasant recreation of a once happily unified family until reality sinks in. Fights ensue, pints of Guinness are forcibly consumed and music roars and blares in aggressive dance moves that evoke a sense of confusion and resentment.
Communication and confession with both the living and the dead scream to be heard. And the presence of this man, husband and father, is so deeply absent that it has forced his son and wife to exist in an asymmetrical reality like a place setting at the dining room table doomed to remain empty forever.
While most of Feidlim and Ann’s story is shaped by trauma and grief, it is also a richly woven and ever evolving narrative of a mother and son’s passage toward hope and reconciliation with one another and with themselves. As a matter of fact, their history is so genuinely human that while I’ve never experienced the depth of loss that the Cannons have, I couldn’t help but reflect upon the painful fragments of my past that I’ve left tucked away in a corner, the ones that have collected dust like an old photograph afraid of what memory or trigger is lurking inside the images. But why fear? Feidlim, Ann and Erich are bold and courageous enough to invite us into their world, the therapist’s couch, hand us a brightly colored balloon and tell us that it’s alright to cry.