by Ron Cohen · August 15, 2014
Nicole Maxali, the writer and performer of Forgetting the Details, bounds on stage with such contagious enthusiasm and vivacity that I felt compelled to hang on to her every word. And she says plenty of them in this 75-minute recounting of her personal history as a Filipino-American girl growing into womanhood under the guidance of her spiky but traditional grandmother and her musician-painter-gambler-pot-smoker father. The two lived on separate floors of her grandmother’s house in San Francisco.
Maxali’s story has its familiar elements. The grandmother’s descent into Alzheimer’s is a major thread, as is Nicole’s strained relationship with her divorced father after he brings home a new wife. (Nicole’s mother pretty much fades out of the proceedings when she moves away from San Francisco as Nicole starts college and moves in fully with grandma.) But as Maxali portrays these two people along with her own persona, the love she feels for them is palpable. This, together with the elements of the Filipino heritage that color their lives, gives the show its own distinctive flavor. It makes for an exceptionally endearing solo show entry for the New York International Fringe Festival.
Among the highlights, Maxali enacts grandma -- or Lola (a Filipino word for grandma) -- scooping out ice cream for all the kids during grade school recess much to the embarrassment of the young Nicole. Grandma make sure that every kid getting ice cream professes to be a friend of Nicole. As Nicole grows older, she is bombarded by Lola’s insistent questioning about boyfriends. On the darker side, there‘s the intense battle between Nicole and her father over care for Lola and his handling of her possessions after she is moved to an assisted living facility. And as dementia overtakes Lola, the narrative has its heartbreaking moments.
But the show is well-peppered with laughs as well. Humor seems to be a large part of Maxali’s DNA. And there’s plenty of theatrical savvy evident as well in the way the show is pulled together, under Paul Stein’s keen direction. Lightning-fast changes in mood keep the atmosphere bubbling, and Maxali’s delineations of personality, as she portrays her cast of characters, are razor-sharp. There were times when I simply gave up the reality that there was just one actor on stage.
At the show’s end, Maxali pulls up a movie screen on which a series of family photographs is projected without comment. The details of the photographs -- the who, the when, the where -- were not known to me, but the meaning they had for Maxali was clear. It seemed to demonstrate her script’s message that sometimes you have to step back from the irritating minutia of life and see the big picture of love and humanity.
It was also to Maxali’s credit that the photographs further piqued my curiosity about her family. She had me genuinely caring about some people I hadn’t even known existed some 75 minutes earlier. Now, that’s theater!