Steve Brown

at Cafe Voltaire, through December 28

Midway through Steve Brown’s exquisite one-man performance, Trust Me, a woman attempts to explain the reality of death to her young daughter. Katie had attended the wake of a family friend that afternoon and, much to her mother’s chagrin, poked the body repeatedly out of sheer curiosity. Hoping to communicate the seriousness of death to Katie, the mother stumbles through several unsuccessful metaphors, then hits upon an image the child can understand: at some point your eyes become so exhausted that they can no longer obey the brain’s daily command, “Open your eyes and look.”

This story encapsulates Brown’s simple but wholly effective approach in Trust Me. While he spends some time poking at death, he’s more attentive to life’s directive to open one’s eyes and look. Fortunately for us, his vision is crystal clear: equipped with a keen wit, an expressive physical grace, and a seemingly endless capacity for empathy, he weaves life’s insignificant details into a colorful fabric at once dazzling and familiar, containing moments of great human drama.

Trust Me is a series of scenes centered around a family’s last barbecue of the summer. As in any family gathering, conversation ranges from the banal–reliving a walk through the new mall–to the bizarre: “Hey! Anyone going across the street to catch golf balls with Robert has got to wear a helmet!” Interactions may be innocent (Grandma searching for a picture of a guardian angel for her granddaughter), troubling (a kid defending his tree fort by saying, “No gays in the tree!”), or touching (a father telling his HIV-positive son, “You’ve got our house if you need it”).

The surefooted Brown guides his audience through a beguiling familial maze, never once slipping into sentimentality. Though he embodies only one character per scene, each scene is in fact a conversation (sometimes many conversations at once) of which we see and hear only half. In one virtuoso section a woman carries on simultaneous telephone conversations with her husband, her sister, her mother, and the Humane Society (all on separate lines) while trying to keep her kids from killing each other in the next room. By actually presenting only one character at a time, paradoxically Brown fills the stage with a supporting cast, all of whom are created more convincingly through the subtle reactions of the speaker than they would be if Brown tried to embody them all.

The result is a piece like an intricate puzzle, at once elegantly simple and dizzyingly complex. Just making sense of all the family relationships, weeding out the gossip from the fact, is challenging. Yet the effort pays off. The connections between these family members are decidedly tenuous, yet at the most unexpected moments the love that binds them shines forth. Young Katie, for example, babbles on about Peter Pan to her grandfather, then gestures toward him and says, “I just threw pixie dust on you so your heart will keep beating even while you’re sleeping.” Brown cleverly withholds information in each scene, forcing us to imagine a full picture. The grandmother begins one scene, for example, by saying that she wants to come down into the hole to see if “it” has wings. We have to wonder where this scene will go, and the clues pull us along.

Though the relationships between characters gradually become clear, in many ways the family remains intriguingly veiled. We recognize all-too-true glimpses–the child differentiating between “fun Grandma” and “scary Grandma,” the father referring to his gay son’s lover as “your friend with the ponytail”–but never are the characters reduced to types. In fact they don’t seem like characters at all: they have the depth and dimension of real people. And like real people, we never know them fully.

But Brown knows these characters inside and out, seeing as accurately through the eyes of a 4-year-old girl as through the eyes of a 40-year-old tax attorney. Yet paradoxically only slight differentiations in voice and physicality are necessary to separate the characters: Brown goes for the essence of each person, allowing the audience to fill in the details.

Mary Beth Easley, who staged the piece, shares Brown’s sense of economy. She places him atop a wooden door–resembling the front door of a house–that rises out of the floor like a miniature raked stage, as if the door’s hinges had just given way. By so limiting Brown’s playing space, Easley tightens the focus of the piece.

The door is a perfect metaphor: it’s a passageway, a point of transition between a public and private space. Brown stands at this interface, transforming private moments into public performance. Yet since he stands at a point of transition–just as his characters watch the summer change imperceptibly into winter–these distinctions constantly fold in on themselves, for surely the public face that Brown adopts is also highly personal.

This sense of transformation, which Brown establishes from the start, is central to Trust Me’s success. The first scene melts instantly into the second without pause or break; rarely does any scene end–instead it magically evolves into the next. This gives the piece an organic flow suggesting the cycles of nature, also captured in the repeated image of the earth spinning through space endlessly. Trust Me seeks not conclusion but collusion. With so many elements spinning at once–I defy anyone to put all of Brown’s scenes into chronological order–certain elements naturally begin to clump together, giving them a power by association they lack individually. Death, for example, which is merely hinted at in a few scenes, becomes a powerfully regenerative force that whirls around the periphery of this performance.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this delicate, almost casual piece is its great emotional sweep. Brown never seems to work up a sweat, and his characters never approach anything like emotional upheaval. But he gives tiny moments such care and insight that they convey enormous truths. It’s the subtlety of these truths, the tender moments of love, nostalgia, and regret, that makes Trust Me so rich and rewarding.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kim Hanson.