We all dream about making the world a better place. Some people just can’t sit back and dream about it, however – some people have to take action, like the two brothers in A Dream About Sunflowers (written by Jonathan Wallace and directed by Amber Gallery) who start up “Geeks Without Borders” which (much like Doctors Without Borders) uses technology to assist people whose survival is threatened by violence, neglect, or catastrophe.
When we first meet Tom (Patrick Burchill) he’s in his forties but mentally seems much older; he’s thoroughly beaten down by what he sees going on in the world, day after day through his organization. He dreams of packing it all in and living in a cabin, growing big sunflowers . . . because he finds them fascinating. ”Each floret forms at random angles to the others, and yet looked at as a whole they make a mathematically predictable pattern. Free will and fatality in a flower . . . It happens whether anybody is there or not, whether anybody understands or not.” Yet there’s no conceivable end date in sight for Tom. His work has become his life and his life has become an endless stream of people who he feels he must save. He constantly ask the same questions – When can you say you’ve help enough people? When can you feel that the good you are doing outweighs the mistake you made?
Tom is telling this to Usha (Megha Nabe) – a woman who’s quick wit and fast smile isn’t slowed by the fact that she’s apparently lifeless from the waist down. How she became a paraplegic becomes clearer as Tom spends his off-hours in a living room, winding back the clock and reliving the watershed moments of his life, such as the day he hired Usha to come work with him, and even further back to the day when Tom and his brother Jerry (Aaron Davis) were (like their namesakes) playing a cat and mouse game. One brother (the slicker, younger Jerry) always coming out ahead, always having the answers, always in the right place at the right time. And the older brother, Tom – a little more plodding, a little more thoughtful, a little more apt to stop and smell the sunflowers along the way and get tangled up in the miles of metaphorical computer cord.
Tom explains how Jerry came up with the concept of Geeks Without Borders and then acted as its front man because the project ”was sexy—a geek in a flak jacket with a bulletproof laptop in his arms. If I was lucky, you’d see half my head, to one side of him in the photograph.” When it comes to his younger brother, admiration and jealousy are so intertwined for Tom that it’s hard for him to articulate exactly how he felt about Jerry. All that’s solidly clear is that each emotion is tethered to a lead balloon of guilt.
Just when you’re about to question why there’s so much exposition in Sunflowers (almost every conversation between Usha and Tom begins with a “tell me again about …”) an unexpected revaluation makes it all understandable and even forgivable. And also very, very sad.
Some say that to dream of sunflowers symbolizes warmth, abundance, longevity, and prosperity. If that is the case, then the title alludes to the use of the phase “to dream of” as in “to hope for” . . . Tom hopes for a life of abundance and longevity not just for himself (in fact, least of all for himself) but more so for the people who are in the Geeks Without Borders trenches, fighting for the disenfranchised and the displaced. And of course, it is for those people above all whom Tom hopes for a life of warmth, abundance, longevity and prosperity.
Megha Nabe and Patrick Burchill do a great job of taking Jonathan Wallace’s script and making it a softer thing, a more layered and less black and white story. Nabe brings a charm and a goodness to the character of Usha: a woman who, otherwise, could easily have been portrayed as brittle and jaded. Burchill, too, layers in complex emotions to Tom that don’t always add up to an easy way out. He makes us feel the struggle Tom goes through every day to get up out of bed after lifting this enormous weight aside just to put his feet on the floor. But at least he’s got another day in store.
There’s a hook at the end that makes a lot of some of the more questionable choices in Sunflowers easier to forgive, such as the bedtime story feel of it all. Two adult people probably wouldn’t spend their waking hours reliving how they met – reminding each other with phrases such as “then you . . .” “Yes, and I . . .”. It’s a little stilted and awkward, but the big reveal explains much of the mechanism away, and therefore gives the entire play the feeling of a fairy tale – one which Tom must repeat to himself over and over again until his time has been served and he can go be more of the “free will” part of the sunflower and less the “fatality”. The sad thing is, he knows . . .he will continue this ritual whether anybody is there or not, whether anybody understands or not.
~~~A DREAM ABOUT SUNFLOWERS A Howling Moon Cab Comany production benefiting Doctors Without Borders Written by Jonathan Wallace Directed by Amber Gallery Running time: 70 minutes, no intermission Venue: The Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street Performance dates: Sun 6/13 @ 1:30pm Fri 6/18 @ 9pm Sat 6/19 @ 5pm Sat 6/26 @ 11:30am Purchase tickets here.