There’s something odd about Dean Poynor’s “Together We Are Making a Poem in Honor of Life.”
The play explores what happens when memories threaten to fade after Brian (Poynor) and his wife Rebecca (Monica Wyche) lose their child in a school shooting. The two person show takes place entirely within the circled chairs of a support group meeting. For something as difficult to discuss as the loss of a child, even a fictional one, it’s very intimate.
The oddness comes from not really feeling invited in. The actors repeatedly acknowledge audience members (their fellow support group members) as friends with whom they can have intimate conversations (and, occasionally, fights).
But audience members are not friends and don’t know the backstory. As a result, a barrier develops between the audience and the couple. That divide is perhaps most apparent when Brian cracks a joke during the meeting. It lands awkwardly with audience members, who seem uncertain whether it’s appropriate to laugh.
The play treats exposition and backstory as secondary, wanting to focus instead on the characters and making it hard for patrons to invest emotionally in the play.
It’s a flaw the most empathetic in the audience likely can overlook, for the play includes some shining gems. Wyche and Poynor, under director Anne Kelly Tromsness’ guidance, spend most of the play on opposite ends of the circle, as if to emphasize how far apart they have become in their relationship. The unease between them is palpable.
One particularly powerful moment comes when Rebecca, struggling to remember her son, asks Brian for help. He assumes the “role” of their son, conversing with his "mother." The simple scene, one in which the rest of the support group seems to fade away, offers an unobstructed view into how these characters are truly coping.
The trouble is, gems like this come in the second half of this 70-minute play. During the first half, patrons might find themselves piecing together what is happening on stage. The passage of time is hard to track and when the play takes a swing at the gun control issue, as surely is its right, it loses the personal connection to the couple's story.
The theatrical conceits of the play — that support group circle setup — prevent the audience from experiencing Brian and Rebecca’s full emotional turmoil. But as the play reaches its emotional end, one look into Poynor's and Wyche’s eyes shows just how acutely their characters' pain is felt.
Reviewer J.R. Pierce is a Goldring Arts Journalist at Syracuse University.