nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 24, 2012
In Menders, playwright Erin Browne imagines a repressive society where a medicated populace no longer dreams and poetry and storytelling have become lost, banished arts. A prologue sets the stage: we see news bulletins projected on white panels at the rear of the stage that let us know that the United States has been torn apart after some cataclysmic events; the country where Menders takes place is walled off from its neighbors, as much to keep its people locked in as to prevent attack or invasion.
Corey and Aimes are two young recruits recently graduated from the Academy and now in training as Menders. The job of the Mender is to patrol the wall, looking for signs of escape or entry and reporting same to their superiors; occasionally Menders may catch someone in the act and make an arrest. Corey and Aimes are being trained by Drew, who was also, for a time, an Investigator—part of an elite corps who have actually journeyed beyond the wall.
The job of the Mender is mostly walking, and so as Drew takes Corey and Aimes through their daily regimen, he tells them stories to pass the time. One of their favorites is about a farmer named Jeff, who lived in a place called Kansas growing something called wheat. Jeff's is a solitary life until one day he is suddenly visited by an angel, Lila. Jeff instantly falls in love with her and devises a terrible plan to keep her with him forever.
Drew also tells them the story of a young woman named Tam who is allergic to the sun and lives underground in a city beyond the wall that we would identify as New York. On an underground train, Tam meets a wandering musician named Ash, and Ash is immediately smitten. Though Tam is very reticent about reaching out beyond her underground world, Ash proves to be a persistent suitor. (Ash is a woman, also, and this story of forbidden love between two women is subversive; Corey and Aimes are shocked and titillated.)
These two tales and their effect on the young menders comprise the most potent element of Browne's script. But the play also includes much darker stuff: when we first meet Corey, it is long after these events took place, and she is on trial, though she doesn't know exactly why. Shades of 1984 and other dystopian literature color this part of the play. And throughout there are many references to Robert Frost's poem "Mending Wall" (the one that ends "Good fences make good neighbors"); though the link to forbidden poetry is clear, the specifics of Frost's themes and those of this play never melded together for me in the way that I think Browne intends. But as a cautionary work about the importance and power of stories and imagination, Menders is entirely captivating and incisive.
Heather Cohn has directed this complicated play with warmth and sincerity in the welcoming space at the Gym at Judson for Flux Theatre Ensemble. The cast of seven is fine, with particularly memorable performances coming from Raushanah Simmons as Ash and Matt Archambault as Drew.