Playwright Lisa Kron starred in the autobiographical 2.5 Minute Ride off-Broadway in 1999, picking up an Obie award in the process. But it’s hard to imagine she could have endowed this seriocomic love letter to her German-Jewish father with any more elegance or conviction than Leah Walton is doing at Norristown’s Theatre Horizon.
Under the direction of Elaina Di Monaco, Barrymore winner Walton is giving a bravura, physically expressive performance as Lisa in this idiosyncratic, discursive memory play. The one-woman show, in a Philadelphia-area premiere, is the opener of the theater’s themed Women Who Dare season.
If you know three-time Tony winner Kron’s work in Fun Home, for which she wrote the book, you’ll recognize her propensity for creating mosaics of shifting time and emotion. The “2.5 minute ride” refers to the duration of a ride on a roller-coaster called the Mean Streak at the famous Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. It’s a place the Kron family seems to visit, bizarrely, for its food, though Lisa’s nearly blind and none-too-healthy father also relishes pushing his limits.
The title serves, too, as a metaphor for the play itself, with its sudden, wrenching changes of direction. The narrator’s account of a family trip to Cedar Point is intercut with memories of another, far less lighthearted excursion she shared with her father — first to his native Germany, which he left as a 15-year-old in 1937, and then to Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Poland, where both his parents were murdered.
One of the show’s most chilling set pieces is Lisa’s description of the search she undertook at Auschwitz, in the dark, with the help of flashlights and a security guard, for her father’s missing bag of glasses. “I can’t bear that there’s a piece of us left here somewhere,” she says, adding that she knows far more important things have been lost in this haunted place.
Lisa’s émigré father settled in Lansing, Mich., and served in U.S. Army intelligence during World War II. (She doesn’t use the phrase, but he may have been one of the so-called Ritchie Boys, German speakers — many of them Jewish refugees — trained at Maryland’s Camp Ritchie to interrogate enemy combatants.) Morphing into her father, with his gentle accent, she tells the story of how he got a Gestapo agent to admit his complicity in deportations from the Kraków ghetto.
The central visual conceit of 2.5 Minute Ride involves how we reconstitute images from the past. Lisa opens the show by clicking through family slides that appear to us only as framed, projected light. And she reveals that she’s employed a videographer, Mary, to capture moments of her father’s life, which they keep asking him to repeat for the camera.
How much can we trust these recollections, when even the narrator admits that too much already has slipped away? Sara Outing’s set, with its semiabstract array of empty frames, underlines the question, with contributions from Alyssandra Docherty’s sensitive lighting and Larry Fowler’s sound design.