Haiku in the Classroom

An aging mother works desperately to restore her invalid daughter’s mental health. The prodigal daughter returns home, but instea of finding celebration, she is greeted with despair. Due to the snowstorm on Monday, Haiku actually performed twice, once on Monday at 5:00 pm and once on Tuesday at 6:00 pm. The extra performance was scheduled to allow those whose return to school had been delayed by the weather to see the show. However, Haiku was, in itself, deserving of an extra performance. Directed by Allegra Asplundh-Smith ’04, Haiku told the story of a mother, Nell, and her mentally unstable daughter Louise, played by Susannah Nitz Gund ’04 and Iris Siegle ’05 respectively. Louise, in her medication-induced stupor, has taken to spontaneously creating works of haiku which her mother painstakingly copies down to publish. When Billie, Nell’s other daughter played by Alex Colaianni ’03, comes to visit her family, she dredges up painful memories from her childhood growing up with Louise. These memories, shown through flashbacks, were arguably the most powerful and emotional aspect of the performance. Triggered by only a few spoken words, a memory would well up inside of Billie’s mind and expose itself to the audience. As a flashback began, the lights would quickly change to a deep blood red, creating the semblance of a nightmare. Colaianni’s performance during these scenes was awe-inspiring, her voice changing suddenly, taking on the high, nasal, innocent intonation of a very young child. Colaianni nailed the movement and thought process of a child, creating an incredibly real little girl onstage. As a flashback ended, the play would revert to real time with another change in the lights and a spoken line repeated in each transition from memory to reality. Outside of her memories, Colaianni’s at first businesslike demeanor was shed as the ache of remembering her childhood wore away at her carefully-constructed shield. Colaianni’s pain was tangible; her strong desire for her sister to recover constantly fighting against her realistic conscience telling her it was not to be. Colaianni’s character had other inner pains as well. Through her memories and her reality, one learned of her despair at her father dying while she was still a child, and her mother’s constant devotion to Louise. Colaianni excelled at letting the audience see the reasons behind her actions as the play progressed. Susannah Nitz Gund, as Nell, brought to life a woman who is constantly on the edge of despair, keeping herself sane only through self-deception and the haiku published under her name. Gund played a thoroughly exhausted, aging mother, a sharp contrast to her stronger and more active self that appeared in one of the show’s several flashbacks. Gund’s pain was as visible and emotional as Colaianni’s, and although at first Nell seemed to have the weaker spirit, it soon became clear that her will was far stronger than that of Billie, who ran away from the “problem” of Louise as Nell stayed to take care of her invalid daughter. Yet eventually the hardship of remaining by Louise’s side wore away at Nell’s sanity, and Gund played this aspect marvelously, creating elaborate lies to fool herself into thinking that Louise’s condition was improving. By far, however, the most heart-wrenching and powerful performance was that of Iris Siegle. Playing Louise with a wide-eyed innocence and a far-away lilt to her voice, Siegle showed the audience a terrified little girl trapped inside the drugged body of an adult. Early in the play, as one dose of medication began to wear off, the real Louise was briefly exposed, a desperate girl who could not bear the pain of being unable to properly see, hear, or talk to her mother. Even when Siegle did not speak, her performance was remarkable. Whether she was off to the side, away from the action, or right in the middle of it, she remained exactly the same, able to completely block out what was taking place around her and continue staring into infinity. Her outwardly harmless nature was strangely terrifying, as one knew from her bandaged forehead that the drug-induced stupor held back a dangerously unstable girl. A much younger Louise was portrayed in the flashbacks, but Siegle played the younger and older incarnations of her character nearly identically in movement and intonation. This aspect of Siegle’s performance emphasized the lack of change in her character’s condition, despite every effort of her mother to believe the contrary. Siegle’s delivery of the haiku itself was almost frightening, occurring at seemingly random intervals, disrupting whatever conversation or event was currently taking place. No matter what was happening, when Gund heard a verse of haiku begin, she would instantly stop whatever she was doing to write it down, turning her character into a borderline obsessive-compulsive. Allegra Asplundh-Smith’s direction was superb. During “real time” in the play, the actors stood apart from each other at first, in sharp contrast to the much more claustrophobic atmosphere of Billie’s memories. As the play progressed, however, the boundaries between the memories and reality began to fade as Asplundh-Smith made each subsequent transition more emotional and compelling. A final, violent confrontation completes a circle, throwing Gund and Colaianni back away from Louise, and once again spreading out the action. Stage manager Claire Collery ’06 did a fantastic job with the lights, contrasting the blood red lighting of the flashbacks with a cold blue light for reality. The lighting design seemed to follow the general moods of the actors as the play progressed, intensifying the same emotions of the audience as they were drawn into the minds of Nell, Billie, and Louise.