If you are hesitating before seeing What I Thought I Knew, the one-woman show by Alice Eve Cohen at the Kitchen Theatre, because you are unsure you want to see a mother in her mid-40s agonize about whether or not to have a baby, fear not. Cohen describes her own doubts, emotional turbulence, struggles with the feeling engendered by her cultural traditions (and the differences with her fiancé's), but her indomitable personality and the clarity of her thinking about everything that happened to her keeps the audience from descending into a maelstrom in the present, although you very much believe that she had been in one several times during her ordeal many years ago.
Recurring themes in What I Thought I Knew include “the evil eye,” storytellling, and the incompetence of the American medical community. The evil eye is part of pan-Mediterranean folkway that discourages people from speaking (or thinking) of their own good fortune. In a nutshell: never become complacent with your own happiness or it will be taken from you. In the spring of 1999 Cohen was feeling as if everything was going well in her life, but when she started to feel ill and develop a lump in her abdomen this very secular, educated, Upper West Side resident is visited by a superstition from deep in the pagan roots of her Jewish heritage. And she will not shake it for several months.
During her pregnancy Cohen was teaching a course in one-person performance at the New School. She describes this kind of performance as—like the evil eye—having very ancient roots. The set designed Alexander Woodard speaks to this origin in storytellling: it is consists of a white square area on the floor, a white square floating at an angle just beneath the lights, and a silver painted chair. Cohen moves and sometimes dances around this space and different positions come to represent different locations and encounters. She retreats to a back corner of the square at stage left at intervals to recount “what I know.” Director Elizabeth Margid has created structure and order in an empty space.
Don't try to keep count of each character that Cohen represents in the course of this play. Most of them are doctors or other members of the medical profession. As presented by Cohen, all of them are insensitive, most of them are arrogant, and some of them are extremely incompetent. Cohen recreates their accents and body language to make them so distinct that you will recognize them when they reappear without overt identification. If it is part of mission of medicine to reduce fear by providing reliable information based on investigation based on science, Cohen portrays a profession unconscious of its complete inability to see its own failure.
What Cohen has these doctors saying (and her impersonation of how they are saying it) is so awful that it is absurd … and therefore mordantly funny. This is in part because we know that all these things happened to Cohen in the past, and here she is in front of us, telling us all about it in a spunky, canny, perceptive way. It feels like a war story told by a veteran; however great the danger, you know they will survive because they right here telling it.
But Cohen's genius is to tell the story in a way that makes it stick with you. And it is in reflection, after she has taken her last bow and left the stage, that you discover the pain beneath the humor. The trajectory of What I Thought I Knew is punctuated by Cohen's retreats to the corner to summarize what she knows. The story also unfolds in straight chronological fashion with no flashbacks or deep exposition, which maintains the momentum throughout. Cohen slows the pace and relieves the tension at intervals by shifting to her professional life, which serves as a comment on the main thread of the story unfolding in her personal life. Sound designer Eric Nightengale and lighting designer Tyler Perry also create distinct sonic and atmospheric environments on the bare stage that give further structure to the performance and imprint it on your memory.